The full article was published recently by the Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT) under their project The Other Hundred
There comes a time in the life of a nation when the worst of adversities brings out the best in its people. One such time is now. One such nation is Bhutan. And, one such people are the Bhutanese.
Covid-19 was a bolt from the blue for the world and the news reverberated across the Himalayas, even in the otherwise unsuspecting, innocent Bhutan going about its normal rhythm of life. So, even as the first positive case of the virus was detected in a visiting tourist, the country was galvanised within hours and a national task force was promptly put in place to meet any potential eventuality.
“Not a single life should be lost to Covid-19” was the order from the King, who has been leading the collective effort from the front. Seven months on, there have been no fatalities, transmission episodes number around just 260, out of which some 80 cases are in isolation and the rest have recovered. But we have no illusion about the challenge that the unknown enemy poses.
Despite all the anxiety and uncertainty that still hang in the air, this has become one of the truly extraordinary instances in which the whole nation of Bhutan has come together as a family. This moment has witnessed the spontaneous manifestation of national solidarity, outbursts of goodwill and volunteerism, and an uplifting sense of giving and caring across the country.
His Majesty has travelled multiple times to all the risk-prone areas to personally assess the situation and to provide moral support and reassurance to the front-line warriors posted in diverse locations. The government has emphasised the primacy of life over development work, which can be picked up and expedited as normality returns.
The young men and women in orange trained under the auspices of the De-Suung, meaning ‘Guardians of Peace’, are part of a programme initiated by His Majesty the King in 2011, and have been the bulwark of essential service delivery across the country during the national lockdown. In addition to patrolling border-entries and towns, these omnipresent guardians of peace help with the implementation of health advisory services in critical places, deliver medicines and safety-related items like masks, sanitisers, and soaps wherever needed, and assist state agencies in diverse ways.
In order to help home-yearning Bhutanese citizens stranded in foreign lands, chartered flights have been arranged by the government as directed by His Majesty the King. All returning youth who have unfortunately been rendered jobless are receiving monthly maintenance allowances from the state, as are local jobseekers. Payments of bank loans have also been deferred and interest on all loans waived for several months till the situation improves. Bank officials have been going around to villages with cash to make it available to people who cannot access banking facilities owing to the disruption of normal working hours and movement restrictions.
It is truly heartening to witness hotel owners offering their properties to be used as quarantine facilities by the government which meets all the tracing, testing, quarantining, isolating, food, accommodation and follow-up costs. Many house owners have also been waiving monthly rents, fully or partially, which has relieved tenants of much anxiety during these difficult times.
Many vehicle owners, travel agents, and taxi drivers have volunteered their services as their contribution to the national effort. The business and industry sectors have been making their own share of input to support the government.
In this statewide effort, even villagers and farmers have been offering their farm and livestock produce to the frontline heroes. Many households keep food items outside their homes for those in need and invite the frontline warriors in for meals and rest in appreciation of these service providers, who willingly distance themselves from their homes and families for fear of possible infection.
In solidarity with the government, all members of the parliament have donated one-month’s salary to the Covid-19 fund, while volunteers and well-wishers have also been pitching in, in big and small ways. It is indeed heartening to see the government and the opposition party working in perfect harmony to handle the threat from the virus.
It must be rare in the world for the Queen of the country to personally prepare and deliver food and refreshments to the men and women in the frontline. But Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan has been doing precisely this for several weeks now – preparing nutritious food and refreshments for the health workers and other frontline warriors and support teams stationed all over Bhutan.
As a special act of love and care during these anxious times, all newborn babies across the country have also been receiving royal gifts from Her Majesty the Queen in hospitals and in homes.
Touching messages of gratitude and prayer have been pouring in from across the country in acknowledgment of such royal affection and care.
At this time in Bhutan, the whole country has transformed into a veritable temple of worship with His Holiness the Chief Abbot presiding over sacred prayer ceremonies performed by the monastic institutions across the country for the well-being of the country, the citizens and for people the world over.
The Office of His Holiness also made exceptional efforts to deliver – through our embassies and other diplomatic channels – sacred items invested with blessings and empowerment to all our Bhutanese citizens to keep them safe wherever they are in the world. The recipients of these surprise blessings from their beloved country when they are away from home, at a challenging time, have been moved beyond words as they express their gratitude to the noble souls for comfort and reassurance.
His Majesty has instructed that all demographic details be collected from citizens above 60 years of age from across the country. The elderly receive vitamin tablets, masks, sanitisers and soaps sent by the King to their homes.
An embodiment of compassion for all sentient beings – human and non-human – His Majesty the King has desired and directed that even the stray dogs on the street should not go hungry. To this end, personnel from the Royal Bhutan Army have been feeding the strays wherever they are during the lockdown when food becomes scarce for them.
Televised live music, dance performances and film shows provide regular relief and entertainment during the lockdown and quarantine period. An unprecedented volume and variety of soul-healing music, uplifting songs and poems have been produced and presented by young and old to wish the country and citizens well at this difficult moment. Teachers have been going out of their way to help students in need. Public cooperation and adherence to safety protocols have been remarkable despite obvious inconveniences.
With all its challenges and the lingering anxieties, this unprecedented time has led to a heartening manifestation of positive energy, the spirit of caring and sharing, and the desire to reach out at an individual as well as at a collective level, prompted by the nobler impulses of humanity, that mark Bhutan out as a rare cradle of Gross National Happiness today.
These heart-warming expressions of national solidarity, born from the love of life and the urge to live as a united family, have even inspired me to publish a special tribute-anthology of reflections, representing a wide cross-section of the society, from pre-teen children to retired prime ministers and elders, on Bhutan’s response to Covid-19 titled Bhutan at Her Best: Sunrays through the rain.
A deeply loved People’s King has fulfilled, many times over, the pledge that Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck made in his Coronation Address to the nation on November 6, 2008:
“Throughout my reign, I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother, and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing. I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children. I have no personal goals other than to fulfill your hopes and aspirations. I shall always serve you, day and night, in the spirit of kindness, justice and equality”.
Concluding the third mid-pandemic address to the nation on September 11, 2020, the Healer King embraced all his people at home and around the world: “You are all in my thoughts”.
Bhutan has hitherto managed to escape the worst thanks to the edifying demonstration of shared priorities and a common purpose, from humble peasants in remote villages to the high office of the head of state. The impulse to save and the will to serve make Bhutan a veritable nation of healers during this global pandemic. It is my fervent prayer that this re-germination of the old latent seed of humanity around the world and the soul-healing sunshine of goodwill and positive energy that Bhutan radiates now will become the new normal beyond Covid-19.
These precious gains are the assets that inspire what I call Revolution 5.0: The Return of the Human, that beckons us to reaffirm and to reassert the primacy of humanity before the exploitative, unsustainable and life-denying GDP-based mode returns and nullifies all our hard-earned benedictions.
Contributed by Thakur S Powdyel
Former Education Minister
Note: The Covid-19 case status given in the article was as it stood when the article was written. The current status is 20 positive cases in isolation as of today”.