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Few nations in the world have handled the COVID-19 pandemic as well as Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom of a little more than 700,000 people. As much of the world struggles to contain the infectious delta variant of the virus, Bhutan has already begun looking to a post-COVID future.
Almost all eligible people, including teenagers, have been vaccinated — no minor feat for a mountainous country (much of which remains unreachable by paved roads) with limited medical and economic resources. Health workers trekked for days at altitudes of more than 12,000 feet above sea level in order to vaccinate the remotest corners. The health ministry, during the second vaccination campaign in July, dispatched almost 5,000 health workers to 1,217 separate locations in order to vaccinate Bhutan’s population. Thousands of volunteers from all walks of life assisted with the push via a program called Desuung (“Guardians of Peace”), initiated by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck to encourage active citizenship.
Not that everything has been easy for Bhutan. After patient zero — an American tourist — was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020, tourism, one of the country’s main revenue streams, was halted immediately, impacting the 50,000 people employed in the sector. Following the closure, the government quickly adopted an economic contingency strategy that included a tourism stimulus plan amounting to about $3.8 million. Tourism employees were reassigned to work in infrastructure, product development, waste management, agriculture, and research.
As elsewhere in the world, schools and colleges in Bhutan were shut down. Education in Bhutan experienced a paradigm shift with the incorporation of technology, moving online and to national TV. Volunteer teachers camped at schools in the capital and taught students from the studios of the national broadcaster. Google Classrooms became the norm. Despite concerted efforts by the government to ensure equitable access, including providing free student data packages, there was a digital divide that saw many students being left behind. Not everyone had access to a smartphone or a television or a good internet connection. COVID-19 revealed both shortcomings as well as opportunities in the education sector.
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What ensured Bhutan’s success, though, was tremendous public trust in the country’s leadership. The king established a royal relief fund and trekked across the country to provide comfort and support to workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, as well as ordinary folk. Under his leadership, financial institutions deferred loans and waived off interest payments.
Bhutan’s COVID success story can also be attributed to the fact that the prime minister and foreign minister are doctors, and the health minister is a public health specialist. The government maintained clear channels of communication with the media and the people in order to check misinformation. Government officials delivered daily press briefings on television as well as on Facebook in the early days of the pandemic. The health ministry and the prime minister’s office updated their social media pages daily, even addressing public concerns live, while WhatsApp groups were created to provide journalists and social media influencers with access to officials in order to share information and engage in fact checking.
So far, the country has seen only three deaths from COVID-19: one in 2020 and two in 2021. All three victims had underlying health conditions. The total number of COVID cases recorded was around 2,600 as of December 2021. Bhutan’s health infrastructure may not rival the world’s wealthiest countries, but that mattered little to the elderly American tourist who was patient zero. After he was flown back to the U.S., doctors there credited Bhutanese medical care with saving his life.
What accounts for Bhutan’s good fortune during the COVID-19 pandemic? Besides good leadership and careful planning, many Bhutanese will claim — with confidence — that the true answer is divine intervention. Life in Bhutan is entwined with ritualistic Buddhist tradition: The government consulted with the central monastic body for the optimal date for the rollout of vaccines, which were then blessed upon arrival at the airport. A 30-year-old woman, born in the year of the monkey, was chosen as the nation’s first vaccine recipient on March 27, 2021, a day astrologists determined was particularly auspicious. Nationwide daily prayers for protection have also taken place at monasteries since the beginning of the pandemic.
But the likelier explanation for Bhutan’s success is far more mundane: good old-fashioned competent government — a resource that countries with far more wealth and power have so often struggled to harness.