By Tenzin Dharpo and Choekyi Lhamo
DHARAMSHALA, Mar. 27: India’s ongoing 21-day lockdown to contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 has been welcomed by the majority of Indians as well as exiled Tibetans living in the country’s various corners. The lockdown however, has brought its own troubles that has since disrupted routine life and prompted many to fend for themselves when it comes to essentials.
Here in the capital of the exile Tibetan diaspora, Tibetans are taken aback by the death of a fellow Tibetan due to the virus in McLeod Ganj earlier this week. The incident and two other positive cases have prompted Tibetans here to register the seriousness of pandemic and precautionary measures to eliminate the disease.
Essential commodities such as groceries were available to the public, however fresh vegetables were scarcely available earlier in the week and were sold at double the retail price by some vendors. Distancing while shopping was observed in some areas while at others, such guidelines were neglected completely. Tenzin Dechen, a resident of Norbulinga told Phayul, “The onus has been placed on each one of us and so we can all work towards that on an individual level. Personally, the lockdown has meant I am spending so much time with my parents and getting to bond further with them.”
On a positive note, no new cases have been found at the moment and more than 45 samples sent for testing to Pune have been found negative including close contacts of positive cases. Among the two current positive cases, sample of one has also been found negative. The patient will be discharged if the follow-up test also comes up negative, sources said.
The Sonamling Tibetan settlement has one of the largest number of Tibetans in exile. The region which is almost cut-off during its harsh winters have now been further troubled by the discovery of more positive cases with the tally jumping to 13 as of March 28. The region faces an acute shortage of essential items as the Srinagar-Leh highway which opened just recently has been blocked by authorities due to the lockdown.
The supplies are running low and stocks from last year getting depleted, Secretary of the Tibetan Co-operative Society Ladakh, Sonam Sangpo told Phayul. “The stock from last year for basic items like rice, wheat, butter and oil will last for another month at the most. The authorities have assured us that they will supply the Tibetans settlements with basic items so we are rooting for that when we run out,” he said. Only those vegetables that are produced locally such as turnips, onions and greens are available although on an inflated rate.
A few Tibetans who have come from abroad are in self-quarantine, regularly being checked for symptoms while more than a dozen students from Changthang studying at schools like Lower TCV who returned after the schools were closed down, are kept in quarantine at Choglamsar and are being taken care of by the settlement office.
With the lone road that currently connect the region blocked, residents, especially Tibetan refugees are vulnerable to shortages of basic items. The Indian Air force meanwhile has made a few supply runs to the region. Few IAF AN-32 planes, a transport aircraft ferried in doctors as well as medical supplies and emergency equipment to Leh and flew out blood samples for COVID testing to Chandigarh and Delhi, sources said.
The state of Karnataka which holds the largest concentration of Tibetans in exile are scattered amongst the Bylakuppe, Hunsur, Mundgod and Kollegal settlements. While the state has registered 55 positive cases so far, there has been no cases reported from the Tibetan settlements.
However, more than 250 Tibetans in Mundgod have been placed in quarantine after they arrived in the settlements. One of the biggest monasteries, Sera-Jey has closed its common kitchen and distributed supplies to individual monks in contrast to its sister monastery Sera-Mey which continues to cook daily meals for the thousands of monks under its care.
In Bylakuppe, essentials like fresh vegetables are coming by scarcely but grocery items are available as of now. While the lockdown is being observed properly by the Tibetans there, basic guidelines to keep distance while shopping is not adhered to at shops in camp no.1’s main market.
The north east India have been home to many Tibetan refugees who live in settlements across states like West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Sikkim. Besides West Bengal which has 15 cases of COVID-19, the three other states have not registered a single case so far.
Tenzing Dadon, Settlement Officer of Kalimpong which also has jurisdiction over a few cluster units told Phayul that since physical inspection is not an option at the moment, she has been keeping track of the places under her jurisdiction through WhatsApp, a micro-messaging app, with fellow administrators.
“We have told people to curb their movements and home-quarantine as per Indian and CTA directives. I have asked the monasteries to suspend monastic activities for the three coming weeks and also advised people who have come from outside to exercise quarantine for at least one week,” she said while adding that visitors and relatives are barred from visiting the residents of the old-age home as the elderly are especially susceptible to the virus.
Tenzin Nordhen, Settlement Officer of Darjeeling, West Bengal told Phayul, “There are enough essential commodities available at the moment. The pharmacy and ration shops are open for 24 hours here for the public, it was not so before. The virus scare has led the locals and Tibetans to stay indoors for now.”
Uttarakhand (Dehra Dun)
The state of Uttarakhand where Tibetans settlements like Dekyiling and Dhondupling (Clement town) are situated, has registered four positive cases so far. Tsering Dhondup, Chairman of Dhondupling Local Assembly told Phayul, “Since Clement Town is also a tourist spot, we have put up a checking point near the gate where anyone without mask is not permitted to enter, hand sanitizers are given to anyone who enters the settlement. Nobody from outside is allowed unless it is an emergency.”
He further said that as an additional precaution, all the shops and other service providers are required to use gloves and put out sanitizers in their shops. “Since it is the beginning of the lockdown, there has not been any scarcity of essential products so far. People seem to be panic buying. If there are shortages, we will try to provide as much help as possible.” The settlement authorities have directed all three monasteries to close down indefinitely and advised the public to not conduct any gatherings or events for the good of our community.
The considerable Tibetan community in the west, including North America and Europe have been exposed to the frontlines of the disease with countries such as the United States, Italy and Spain at the brink of collapse when it comes to medical infrastructure and management. So far, three Tibetans on record were infected with the COVID-19 virus; a youth in France, an elderly in England and another in Dharamsala. The two elderly Tibetans have unfortunately succumbed in Dharamshala and England.