Dolma Choden Roder (Royal Thimphu College)
Like many in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, I heard about both the first positive case on March 6th (an American tourist who was initially quarantined in the capital but flown home a little after 10 days ) and the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on August 11th on social media. Along with most Thimphu residents, my time under lockdown (21 days from August 11th to September 1st), particularly in terms of access to information and news, was heavily mediated by the internet in general and social media in particular. Our pandemic experience continues to be shaped by these forms of communications.
Social Media in Bhutan
Bhutan was famously late to join the internet, with dial-up services becoming available only in 1999 (at the same time as television was formerly launched in the country, see Figure 1) but according to www.datareportal.com by the start of 2020 there were 450.2 thousand internet users, an increase of 7.2% since 2019. (A 2016 report by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service claimed there were already 500,000 internet subscribers by 2016). According to www.napolencat.com, as of March 2020 there were 464,000 Facebook users in the country, which is about 55% of the total population. For rural Bhutanese and those who cannot read and write in English, the messaging app WeChat, which allows users to send and receive recorded voice messages as well as sharing videos and photos, appears, anecdotally, to be popular.
These emerging socio-economic and regional difference in social media usage have yet to be fully explored, however, the reach and popularity of social media already challenges traditional media in the country. Needrup Zangpo, the Executive Director for the Bhutan Media Foundation as well as a long time journalist and editor, recently pointed out that Kuensel (the oldest newspaper in the country) has 125,948 followers on its Facebook page. This reaches 29 times more people than the print version of the same paper.
However, concerns that social media allows for the circulation of false and even malicious information are frequently voiced both in public discourse and by government agencies. Zangpo, for example, writes that “Social media use in Bhutan has been characterised by gossip, anonymity, character assassination and vanity, with a few exceptions for constructive use.” There are unfortunately already examples of how social media has been used to spread rumors during times of crisis and stress. For example, since the 2009 earthquake, rumors about imminent earthquakes continue to be spread via social media. In 2015 the Central Monastic Body had to in fact officially refute rumors circulating on Facebook and WeChat that claimed that the Je Khenpo (their Chief Abbot) had dreamt of an upcoming earthquake.
Running out of Chilies: The Pandemic in Thimphu
Even before the lockdown, rumors were spread repeatedly over social media (and by word of mouth) about upcoming lockdowns, causing spates of panic buying. Since the pandemic arrived in the region there were concerns about food supply, as Bhutan imports a large quantity of essentials from its southern neighbor, India. There were particular fearful predictions of chilli shortages (chilli is considered a key ingredient in many Bhutanese meals and is famously seen as a vegetable rather than a seasoning) that caused spikes in prices, panic buying, and even chili theft.
It is perhaps no surprise then that one of the biggest preoccupations during the lockdown was access to food. Nonetheless, despite the constant lockdown rumors, many households felt unprepared when the lockdown was announced. The contact details for city-run distribution centers were quickly disseminated on Facebook. But almost immediately people who could afford to, were looking for other options and sharing phone numbers and contact details for the few Thimphu businesses that had permission to do delivers. In fact, concern about access to essential supplies was behind the decision to divide Thimphu into zones to allow limited movement within them so that people could shop for essentials.
Bhutan’s lockdown was a total shut-down that included stay-at-home orders and even the threat of fines for being found outside the home. To ensure compliance dessups (volunteers) also went on regular patrols in the deserted streets. In their bright orange uniforms, they were often the only figures moving through the eerily quiet Thimphu streets (see Figure 2). Dessups are a voluntary organization, initiated by His Majesty, The King in 2011. They are intended to support relief operations and were even deployed to Nepal to help after the 2015 earthquake. They were a key part of the lockdown efforts as they provided assistance with everything from border patrol to delivering food to providing in-person communication) as they came door to door to distribute and explain movement cards allowing one member of each household to come out of the house to buy food at shops within their designated zone. This form of in-person verbal communication was particularly important for those Thimphu residents who do not read and write in English or even in Dzongkha.
Facebook and the lockdown in Thimphu
However, another key source for information was Facebook. Not only do many of us continue to check each day for the Ministry of Health’s update on how many new cases have been detected, but other media agencies (both public and private) also used the platform to disseminate information.
While Facebook posts tend to be in English, media agencies have made efforts to create and widely share informational videos in Dzongkha, which are shared both on Facebook and on other social media platforms. For example, this Facebook video was created by Yeewong (a media company) of a dessup (in full uniform and face shield) explaining how to use movement cards is in Dzongkha. Additionally, each of us were encouraged to join our zone’s Facebook group to receive updates, such as the timing of upcoming vegetable deliveries, and so we could ask questions about the arrival of the garbage truck or how to get essential medicines. I also heard from a friend involved in helping to manage the zonal groups that some administrators created zonal WeChat groups so that the same discussions could happen orally for those residents who do no read and write in English, but all the discussion in our group were in English. Discussions felt hyper-localized, which is highly unusual in urban Thimphu, where many complain that they do not even know their neighbors.
My favorite exchange on this platform during lockdown concerned a pack of black stray dogs that came out to bother shoppers near one of the stores in our zone. One resident recommended that shoppers carry biscuits to feed them. Among several feel-good stories that were circulating on social media during the lockdown I also learnt on Facebook that stray dogs were being feed by the army during the lockdown.
It seems fitting then that on the first day of the unlocking when limited movement was allowed (no cars, only foot traffic and bikes) our Prime Minster posted a photograph of the open road on his first post- lock down bike ride. (See Figure 3)
While Thimphu is often assumed to encapsulate all the peoples and languages of Bhutan, English and Dzongkha dominate all communication that is written and/ or official. Most other Bhutanese language, for example Sharchop, an Eastern Bhutanese language which is widely spoken even in Thimphu, are not written. This has meant that my experience of communication during the lockdown might have been the typical experience of an educated English-reading urban dweller in Bhutan, but can hardly represents the experience for others in Thimphu, let alone the country as a whole.