Omicron outbreak caused by Govt.’s Bubble Mode: Opposition

The party also alleged that the government failed to update health and labor protocols in keeping with the outbreak of Omicron in India

The outbreak of Omicron in the country is caused by the import of foreign workers in Bubble Mode by the government and its subsequent failure to calibrate and update COVID-19 health protocols and labor regulations in keeping with the outbreak of Omicron in India, according to the Opposition Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa). 

In a press release issued by the party yesterday, the Opposition stated that the massive outbreak of Omicron in the country was caused solely by the import of the second batch of 106 foreign workers under Bubble Mode via Gelephu.

“A close study and analysis of the following sequence of events confirms it: i) introduction of Bubble Mode; ii) mode of import of foreign workers; iii) outbreak of Omicron in India and Bhutan; and iv) health and labor protocols in place,” states the press release.

According to the DPT, some months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Bhutan in 2020, foreign workers had left in large numbers for home in India, including from the Punatsangchhu hydropower projects. Subsequent to this, the government had authorized import (rather re-import) of three batches of foreign workers for the Punatsangchhu-II so far: first batch under the normal Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) mode and the second and third batches under the so-called Bubble Mode, as given in the table:

“Under the Bubble Mode, import of foreign workers was permitted, exempting the mandatory 72-hour RT-PCR Certificate prior to entry into the country as well as antigen test at the Point of Entry (PoE). Only regular general medical check-ups were conducted. Further, the foreign workers were transported directly to the project, which is in the interior part of the country,” states the press release.  

According to the Opposition, the following significant deviations and lapses had occurred under the Bubble Mode, which include exemption of Certificate of 72-hour RT-PCR and antigen test at the Points of Entry; transportation of foreign workers directly to interior part of the country for quarantine; and non-update of health and labor protocols (SOPs) in keeping with the outbreak of Omicron in the region, especially India.

“While the second batch of 102 workers imported on 28th November 2021 through Phuentsholing PoE was also brought under Bubble Mode, it did not lead to the Omicron case because this group was brought in a week before the outbreak of Omicron in India. However, the third batch of 106 workers were imported via Gelephu (on December 30, 2021, January 1, 2022 and January 4, 2022) almost a month after the outbreak in India,” states the party.

The Opposition maintained that the government should have been vigilant and mindful of the Omicron outbreak in the region, especially in India, and ideally, proactively updated health and labor protocols thereto.

“But it failed to do so. It is also learnt that there was hardly any coordination among the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Home Affairs and Office of Prime Minister. The matters were largely handled and approval for import of foreign workers accorded directly by the high Office of Prime Minister,” states the press release.

Meanwhile, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 first broke out in South Africa on November 25, 2021, and subsequently, was first detected in India on December 2, 2021 in Karnataka. Bhutan recorded the first case on January 15, 2022 from Wangduephodrang.

According to the DPT, COVID-19 positive cases have increased dramatically since the outbreak of Omicron from Wangduephodrang on January 15, 2022, causing massive social and economic challenges and disruptions to the people and the nation. Total cases have increased from 2,904 on January 15, 2022 to 5,532 on February 3, 2022, which accounts to 2,628 new cases or 91% increase in the last 19 days (since the beginning of the current lockdown).

The Opposition Party has, therefore, strongly urged the government to revisit its current Bubble Mode policy and arrangements for import of foreign workers; and streamline and update the health, labor and immigration protocols for import and quarantine of foreign workers, and keep updating and improving them in keeping with the changing situations.

The party has also recommended the government specifically to enforce Certificate of prior 72-hour RT-PCR and antigen test at Point of Entry and transfer for mandatory quarantine, or conduct antigen and RT-PCR tests at the Point of Entry, and segregate positive and negative cases and put through mandatory isolation and quarantine.

The Opposition also recommended that quarantine of foreign workers be done only in border areas to minimize risks of spread of virus to interior parts of the country.

“Quarantine space could be increased through identifying more facilities in other areas; keeping entry zones flexible depending on quarantine space availability; providing quarantine for domestic travelers in interior parts to make more space for foreigner workers in border areas; constructing more quarantine facilities, if still not adequate with the above measures; and prioritize the import of foreign workers by priority economic sectors and critical skill needs,” states the party.

Based on the current lessons of import of foreign workers on Bubble Mode gone wrong, the Opposition has also strongly urged the government to revisit and streamline the protocols for Air Bubble Travel, for both Bubble Tourism and general inbound travelers.

Yenten Thinley from Thimphu