The country has always stayed ahead of the pandemic, health experts say

Younten Tshedup 

A year ago, today, Bhutan saw its first Covid-19 case triggering a series of events, the ripples of which the country is continuing to face today.

In the early hours of March 6, as the news was made public, mass panic, especially among residents in Thimphu, Paro, and Punakha, began to set in.

Residents rushed to grocery stores and pharmacies to hoard essentials including face masks and hand sanitisers.  The panic, however, was short-lived as people soon began to become complacent and returned to their normal lives.

The country’s experience of Covid-19 can be broadly classified into four episodes — the detection of the first positive case, the first and second nationwide lockdowns, and the arrival of the vaccines.

The episodes came in with their own sets of challenges and also exposed many loopholes in the existing system.  But at the same time, they also highlighted the importance of leadership, solidarity in times of crisis, and trust in both science and faith.


The report card

Just as it was at this time last year, Bhutan today has only one active case of Covid-19.  However, the situation today is better as the country is more prepared and experienced than it was last year.

Bhutan received several critical acclaims from the global community on how it handled the pandemic, despite all its limitations.  His Majesty The King’s leadership was the guiding light throughout the difficult times the pandemic ushered in.

The medical experts ran the entire show in the last one year.  A health crisis was handled in a very clinical nature by the government.  It treated the country as a patient — “identified the infected, isolated them, ran the diagnosis, and then treated until the patient recovered”.

The approach to the pandemic, according to the health minister, has always been evidence-based.  Observers criticised it as a fear tactic.  But it worked.

One year hence, the country has recorded less than 900 positive cases with a 99.76 percent recovery rate and only one death (of a terminally ill patient).

Health experts say that the country has always been ahead of the pandemic.  Bhutan was one of the first countries in the region to start the preparedness plan against Covid-19 on January 11, 10 days after its outbreak in China.

Four days later, screening at the points of entry started.  The ministry’s high-level national preparedness plan was in its second phase by January 21, and the following week the national disaster committee chaired by the prime minister leapt into action.

“As a resource-limited country, we were never held back in our preparedness due to lack of money and other resources. It was His Majesty’s vision that guided us to prepare for the long term and not just address the immediate needs,” said a health official.

He said that it was inevitable that an outbreak of a disease that engulfed the entire world would hit Bhutan.  For this matter, he added that the understanding at the ministry was that being over-prepared was always better than being under-prepared. “It might have been the most conventional method used, but it was all done for the good of the people and country.”

And despite the limited experts in the country, the country made the optimal utilisation of all the available resources.

As Bhutan gears towards the mass vaccination programme, expected tentatively to begin from March 18, it will be another achievement for the country.

With minimal vaccine hesitancy among the Bhutanese, health officials said that they could achieve more than 90 percent vaccine coverage among the eligible population.  This means that of the 533,000 eligible population, the majority would be inoculated giving the population the expected herd immunity.