Tshering Palden  

When Covid-19 crisis unfolded, Bhutanese uncovered the true essence of their King’s leadership, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said at the 76th General Assembly of the United Nations, the main policy-making organ of the organisation on September 25.

Lyonchhen made reference to His Majesty’s coronation address in which a solemn pledge to the nation was made thus: “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…”

More than 12 years later, after three successful parliamentary elections, emerging from numerous natural disasters, and the recent global pandemic, Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering told the gathering of world leaders that the secret to the success was His Majesty The King’s leadership.

“In Him, we saw a son who assured that the old and vulnerable people, were protected from the infection. In Him, we saw a brother who travelled tirelessly throughout the country uplifting the spirits of the frontliners and working alongside to protect the people.

“In His Majesty, we saw a parent who ensured the livelihoods of all those affected. The supports ranged from emotional to cash to food. But of all, we saw a noble being who led with science and wisdom on one hand and care and compassion on the other.”

Complementing all the noble efforts, he said, Her Majesty The Queen showed personal care and initiated targeted interventions for the vulnerable sections of our society with emphasis on mental health care and services in the country.

“When the world was dealing with the unprecedented plight that questioned our survival and livelihood daily we sailed through with a minimum scratch from the pandemic.” 

The UNGA was themed ‘Building Resilience through Hope’. 

Bhutan has seen only three Covid-19 deaths and slightly over 2,500 cases so far most of which were imported cases. Similarly, the vaccination coverage for 12 years and above is almost 80 percent.

Lyonchhen said that it was as though His Majesty saw the pandemic coming. In 2011, De-Suung, an extensive programme that engages citizens in a greater role of nation-building, was stated.  It recharged the entire spirit of volunteerism and opened the world of opportunities for the youth and injected a sense of purpose and responsibility.

When the disease entered the country, the de-suups were helping guard the borders and entry points ensuring everyone followed Covid-19 norms and even became part of the paramedics. This, Lyonchhen said, made a huge impact on the efficient management of the pandemic.

In another unique transformative step, de-suups who were not part of Covid-19 related duties were engaged in various skilling and re-skilling programmes across the nation.

Despite being resource-constrained, the country has not compromised on the quality and the standard of Covid-19 measures.

Lyonchhen said that in the process of battling the pandemic, Bhutan ensured that the routine health services were delivered uninterrupted. Besides the regular vaccination programme, HPV vaccines were introduced for the first time for all the boys and flu shots for everyone amid the pandemic.

A nationwide programme on the prevention and early detection of the three most common cancers – stomach, breast, and cervical was launched. All these were aligned with the Royal visions that are enshrined in the Constitution that mandates the State to provide free health and education, the Prime Minister said.

“His Majesty tells us that quality health and education, made affordable and available to all, are the biggest social levellers,” he said.

Lyonchhen said that it was almost as if the theme of the UN general debate was designed for Bhutan. “The pandemic brought out the very essence of GNH, which seeks collective happiness and not just of oneself. It calls for us to act in unity.”

For Bhutan, everyone came forward to show solidarity, to shield the country from the pandemic under His Majesty’s leadership, he said. If not, the small resource constraint country would have been crushed in the stampedes of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our country’s future is not just founded based on economic might and technological advancement but on the integral values of human bonding and respect. And in this, His Majesty is our hope and is our future,” he said. “I feel this is our biggest strength to come out of any adversities just as we did this time.”

He said that just like the rest of the world, Bhutan too was looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to reset.

The process to overhaul the civil service in consonance with education reform is underway. “This is an unprecedented move.”

A nationwide rollout of the Bhutan baccalaureate system is in progress following the successful trial of the formative education system in the last 10 years.

“Knowing that the path ahead is ICT driven, we have started digital initiatives with the ultimate goal for everyone in Bhutan to have a digital identity, a build-up towards a big data system. Some other components are ICTization of the schools, integrated taxation system, and electronic patient information management,” Lyonchhen said.

Royal Monetary Authority, the country’s central bank, has recently announced the project on digital Ngultrum using blockchain technology. This, Lyonchhen said, is to adapt to the overall ICT transformation and harness technology of a 21st century Bhutan.

The ongoing youth engagement programmes are the major steps to recover from the pandemic. While the effects may not be immediate, down the years, it would have been one of the main reasons for us to come out of the pandemic stronger.

“I feel when Bhutan’s socio-economic transformation is reviewed later, our human development initiatives guided by our king will be the chapter that would have truly steered our nation into the 21st century,” he said. “I’m highly appetitive of the fact that the UN instruments are sensitive in picking this up.” 

A special recognition was awarded to His Majesty for his leadership in advancing human development and wellbeing of Bhutanese people in 2019.

We have immense lessons to draw from the pandemic, be it at national or global level. It has uncovered weaknesses and potentials of many nations and societies but one lesson that we must all keep in mind is to be prepared with a more resilient system for future. The nomenclature for SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 clearly indicates that there will be successive outbreaks of infectious diseases. “It is a matter of when.”

50th anniversary of UN membership

The session also marks the 50th anniversary of Bhutan’s membership in the United Nations. In addition to the UN and development partners, he thanked the government of India for all these years of unconditional support.

In the last 50 years, Bhutan was blessed with three successive monarchs, lyonchhen said. He narrated how Bhutan progressed, in all spheres, under its monarchs over the five decades.

It was His Late Majesty the Third King who worked tirelessly to install Bhutan into the UN. It was a historic move to establish global diplomacy and harness meaningful friendship. The farsighted monarch led the country on the path of modernisation with a focus on modern education and progressive techniques in all spheres.

When His Majesty the Fourth King took over soon after, he came in with a profound development philosophy of Gross National Happiness as early as 1972. As the term GNH became more pronounced over the years, lyonchhen said, the world appreciated its relevance in a sustainable and holistic format as opposed to the conventional GDP growth. The concept was reflected in the UN Secretary General’s recent report titled ‘Our Common Agenda Report’.

The nation lived through major socioeconomic developments, championing conservation efforts and strengthening global ties. “The world will recall that during the peak of His reign, our fourth King stepped down to offer the throne to his son and despite public resistance he ushered in democratic transition,” lyonchhen said.

Destined to carry forward the legacy, Bhutan received a young and dynamic monarch, His Majesty The King in 2006. “Just under two decades, people of Bhutan relished the reign of a King who was caring, learned and astute.

“For generations, Bhutanese have always loved and revered our kings for the simple that our monarchs have been selfless for the nation and the people. But when the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, for Bhutan, we uncovered the true essence of our King’s leadership.”