We welcomed the year 2020 like any other year, with celebrations and local festivals in Bhutan. It was a peak season to gather with families and friends for vacation, hiking, festivals and pilgrimage since schools, institutions and colleges were on winter breaks. International news reported of China dealing with a viral infection outbreak that I never bothered to know the name of. Like the hidden country Bhutan is, I thought the disease would not reach Bhutan. I had just finished an internship at the Office of Attorney General over vacation and was eager to start my spring semester and complete my third year at the law school.
Reporting back to the academic campus, early February saw me struggling with Administrative Law, alleviated by wonderful field trips to Gasa and Punakha Dzongkhags to study social enterprises for Corporate Law. Other than me and my friends keeping a bet on whether it will snow or not and praying for a snowfall by the end of February, we were accustomed to classes starting at 9 am and ending at 5pm with morning assembly every Monday morning and rushing out of the campus gate during weekends for outing. By then, a very few number of Covid-19 cases had reached India but, it was not really a concern in Bhutan.
I was stunned when, early in the morning of 6th March, 2020, instead of the snowfall I had been expecting, my roommate woke me up to the news that Bhutan had its first confirmed Covid-19 positive case. I bolted out of my bed– I am never an early riser– went online and read the news. It was true. The government had announced that schools, institutions and offices in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha remain closed until further notice to trace the contacts of the patient. We were shocked and definitely scared because we did not know what to do and our phones began ringing from the worried folks back at home. We had planned to have breakfast on campus with two intellectual property attorneys from the United States; by the time they arrived, the campus was under lockdown, and they were turned away at the gate.
Our campus in the woods remained closed to outsiders — including law school staff — with only a few essential staff members permitted to bring essential supplies and check upon us. We were locked in our campus, and we spent the time exploring the various footpaths into the woods, clicking pictures, listening to music and reading among the prayer flags overlooking the whole Thimphu Valley. Our lives shifted overnight. After about two weeks, our teachers tried to teach us online — us on-campus, them off-campus, but we missed our homes and families and longed to go home and never forgot to make a fuss about it to our lecturers every time online classes ended.
By then, the other side of the world was in disarray as the pandemic was taking the lives of many and efforts to finding an end to the virus was going on. Our country’s land borders were sealed off and import of fruit, vegetables, and meat was banned in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. Flights into our country brought back Bhutanese from abroad who were quarantined for 14 days which later increased to 21 days, and travel outside the country was reduced.
Two weeks into online classes, the student body had a Zoom meeting with the Dean where he announced that we would be sent home on March 27 as most schools and colleges had resorted to online learning from home. With mixed feelings, we packed our stuff and began calling our relatives in Thimphu to pick us up while some of us called the Bus booking station to confirm our tickets. Having no idea when we would return, we checked the expiry dates on jars of pickles and other snacks, packed them in boxes, and bid farewell to our campus. We never suspected we would be back to the campus only after six months then.
Journeying by bus from Thimphu in the west — where the positive case was first confirmed to four confirmed cases by March 29– to the east, Mongar, where I live, was eye-opening. Every Dzongkhag’s boundary that we entered had us checking our temperature and registering our names. People in the east had their guards up, especially around people from the west and this had me self-quarantine at my house for a couple of weeks once I returned although quarantine was not a requisite for travel within the Country.
Once we settled in at home, online classes continued on Zoom. Online learning was difficult, with the faltering internet connection. Our usually interactive class sessions sometimes descended into a monologue, with only the lecturer speaking. However, delivering presentations to the class in my pyjamas and snacking while joining the classes were fun. I am thankful for my enthusiastic professors who did their best to convey the course to us, sending recorded videos of classes and sharing their PowerPoint slides, while also encouraging questions via email.
The next months followed the similar pattern of the government advising people to follow Covid-19 protocols and it was comforting that we did not have local transmission. Wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands frequently became the new normal. It was an alarming moment for the whole country when the Prime Minister announced an immediate nationwide lockdown during a national address in the early hours of August 11 following a positive case outside quarantine facility and suspecting community outbreak of the virus in a part of Phuentsholing, a border town in the south of the Country. It was imposed with strict lockdown protocols and other containment measures.
Dessups “Guardians of Peace”–volunteers of the country who have attended integrated training to help in any event of disasters, charitable work and celebration– began patrolling towns and villages. It was gratifying to see people respecting the announcements and adhering to the protocols. Doors closed, no crowd or gathering could be seen, events and rituals were either postponed or suspended, the atmosphere became silent and clear and our source of information BBS was always kept on. Waiting for deliveries by the roadside, while waving and smiling behind masks became our routine. Social distancing never felt this close. Ironically, our social distancing was a kind of unity, an altruistic form of collective action aimed at stopping the spread.
This helped me see the pandemic in a positive light. Bonding over random tea breaks and watching Bhutanese movies together, cleaning the house, cooking, singing and squabbling with my sister helped me reconnect a lot with my family members in ways no other vacation did. Although the lockdown was lifted 21 days later, the atmosphere inside was still the same, me and my younger sister attended online classes while my father prayed and mother cooked. This was the first time my family witnessed my law school studies firsthand, watching my struggle with online presentations, group discussions, and readings. I tried out for the school’s Jessup Moot Court team. The oral tryouts were conducted over Zoom, of course, and my father helped me set my laptop in the altar room of our home, the room where we worship. He said God would help me. True to my father’s words, I was selected as one of the five members of the school’s first-ever Jessup team.
My chats with classmates centred around mundane matters, like the goods we left back — remember those expiry dates. But it would be a lie to say that six months at home did not have us missing our friends, professors, and campus, especially with the struggle we had with our internet connection and online learning. We were definitely not in favour of ending the last few semesters online and having virtual graduation like few of our friends who graduated. Every single email and WhatsApp message were important then because the plans for reporting back to the campus kept changing. This was the only time our parents did not reprimand us when cell phones and laptops were never kept aside.
I was exhilarated when we got an email from the Dean on September 14 for face-to-face teaching and learning for the Classes of 2022, 2023, and 2024 and classes would begin on 29 September. Unfortunately, the social distancing requirements made it impossible for our new cohort, Class of 2025 to report on the campus whom we were so eager to meet and welcome into our JSWSL family. We were informed we would be locked inside the campus in the event of a second lockdown to ensure reliable internet and collaboration during group work.
I bid a teary farewell to my family and relatives as returning back home anytime soon after the semester ended was not going to be possible with the current situation. Reporting back required a few of my friends who lived in the red zone area to quarantine for a week before coming to the campus. Following the new normal, we had to check our temperature, disinfect our things and register our names at the campus gate. We waved and hollered at our friends from behind the masks, checked our food and the surroundings where our rooms and classrooms had undergone a drastic change to follow social distancing. Our dining hall and classroom chairs had a metre and a half distance between them and the masks and hand sanitisers became a part of our daily accessory.
In-person classes began in late September. Although we had to strictly abide by the Covid-19 protocols, having in-person sessions was definitely better than online classes. There were more participation and interaction in the class. I can’t imagine how we would have done, for example, role-playing in our Negotiation class online. We never would have been able to take field trips to the Office of the Attorney General, Druk Green Power Corporation, and the Royal Audit for Public Contracts, and our guest lecturers for Professional Responsibility would not have been as engaging in a Zoom window. Thanks to the in-person study, I can perfectly explain the marriage and inheritance laws if anybody asks, and I am more interested in Intellectual Property law now.
Winter set in, and classes ended. We started our semester exams and looked forward to a much needed, stress-free get-together with classmates. The Administration had just announced our vacation dates and the exciting news that we would be shifting to a larger temporary campus down the road in February. Everyone was excited as we had a long vacation and were busy discussing rooms and roommates amidst the examinations. On the morning of December 19, it took us by surprise when yet another positive case was confirmed from one of the flu clinics. Exams were kept on halt and each day we read the increase in positive cases in the country through contract tracing. Shortly on December 22, a second nationwide lockdown was announced as the transmission was a major one, especially in Thimphu and Paro.
This time, we’re locked down inside the campus with pending examinations, one for our class and two for the other two classes. With assurance from the administration that we would be given a day off to prepare for our exams once the lockdown was lifted, most of us have ample free time. My friends have found solace in reading and have completed a lot while some are putting school curry cookers left in the storeroom to use. I am working on my Jessup written briefs which are due on the 6th of January with sleepless coffee nights, sedulous discussion and deliberation while making fun of the dozing teammate. After I am done with the submission of the written briefs, I am planning to watch a lot of movies, read books and also prepare for my oral moot court submissions while waiting and praying for the situation to get better.
All in all, this disconnection with the outside world in a way brought me closer to my roots and origin to my inner world. Every day I am grateful and fortunate to be a Bhutanese under our visionary leaders. All they do for us has made this global crisis less scary and has given strength and hope to so many. This year has taught me the importance of the gift of time, the value of family, friends and about common humanity that unites us in times like these. I hope the year 2021 will be a year of healing, filled with joy and strength we need to overcome, embrace and learn from the memories of 2020.