UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks shares his views on the urgent need to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

Amid a region in crisis, collectively and determinedly we must protect Bhutan’s precious success against COVID-19. A new wave of infections is sweeping across South Asia, with the region now accounting for half of the world’s reported new COVID-19 cases. On 18 May, the South Asia region alone accounted for 4,903 deaths, of which 4,529 occurred in India. This is the highest number of deaths ever recorded in one country in the history of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Nepal and Maldives have some of the highest mortality rates worldwide. Across the region, there are more than 3 deaths from COVID-19 every minute.

In India, the wave is almost four times the size of the first wave and the virus is spreading much faster – tragically, crematoriums cannot keep up. In Nepal, hospitals are overwhelmed. Oxygen and other critical supplies are low and there are just not enough qualified healthcare workers to cope with the surge in cases. In Sri Lanka, the number of daily new cases has reached record levels and is increasing sharply. The Maldives is witnessing an unprecedented peak in cases especially in the capital, Malé, and the health system is under severe strain. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan have experienced recent waves of infections, and Afghanistan is facing increased infection rates.

The sheer speed and scale of infection is overwhelming our region’s health systems and outstripping national capacities to effectively treat patients and save lives.

Bhutan’s response to the pandemic remains exemplary. His Majesty The King’s extraordinary leadership supported by the Government’s relentless effort to implement public health safety measures while vaccinating almost the entire adult population with a first vaccine dose have so far kept the nation safe. 

However, with the rate of the infection spiraling out of control in our neighbouring countries, it has become even more urgent and important for Bhutan to preserve its hard-won protection. Unfortunately, complacency has started to set in among some people towards wearing of masks, handwashing with soap and maintaining physical distance. This complacency threatens to undo all the earlier efforts that have gone into keeping all of us safe. Even with vaccination, it is absolutely critical that we continue to follow existing safety measures. If we drop our guard for even a moment, the terrible situation gripping the region could devastate Bhutan. And we must keep remembering that the longer the virus continues to spread unchecked, the higher the risk of more deadly or contagious variants emerging.

Besides the risks of getting infected, the wider impacts of the pandemic on the lives of people are as worrying. A recent analysis identified which population groups in Bhutan are most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. The report found that nearly one-fifth of the country’s population is multidimensionally vulnerable to the adverse effects of the pandemic. By age, the most vulnerable population groups are the elderly, those above 60 years and children below 10 years. The largest multidimensionally vulnerable population group is households with an uneducated head. It found that 10.5 percent of the population is multidimensionally vulnerable and deprived in terms of connectivity for education. These findings, while warning us of the consequences of letting our guard down, should also help us prepare better by targeting our efforts towards the most vulnerable. 

Across the region, we are now seeing an increasing number of children contracting the virus. Fortunately, most cases of COVID-19 in children are mild. But the wider social impacts are huge and children continue to be the hidden victims of the pandemic. Children are losing parents and caregivers to the virus, leaving many without parental care, exposed to neglect and abuse, and without access to basic services. Essential health services for children and mothers are at risk of significant disruption, with devastating results. Infant and child mortality rates are likely to increase significantly in many countries. Losses in education, mental ill-health and rising cases of violence continue to be core challenges.

We must consider health, nutrition, water, sanitation, education and protection against violence for children and women as ESSENTIAL services that must be invested in and maintained. We must not divert funding away from these crucial services. And as I have written before, if community transmission occurs, schools should be the last institutions to close and the first to safely re-open once outbreaks are controlled; and even during closures, our children need to be supported to keep learning.

UNICEF and its partners are working throughout South Asia to respond to the pandemic and scaling up responses to support the Government’s efforts. We are supporting the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and strengthening health systems including additional procurement of life-saving health equipment and supplies. We are investing in and supporting other essential services including nutrition, WASH, education and protection.

The pandemic is in many ways, a call for leadership. More than a year ago, the World Health Organization pleaded with leaders to act swiftly to contain the virus. This call continues as UN agencies including UNICEF call upon world leaders to make vaccines and resources available for all.

Bhutan has an outstanding, compassionate leadership and the safety protocols needed to defend the nation against the pandemic. The urgent imperative now is for all of us, every single one of us, to follow Bhutan’s leaders and commit to keep wearing masks, practicing personal hygiene, testing if we feel unwell, keeping social gatherings to a minimum, and maintaining physical distance. Every choice we make has the potential to alter the course of this new wave of infections – whether to protect or endanger the lives of those around us. 

The Kingdom of Bhutan is literally the last country in South Asia still standing. Let us remain a beacon of hope for the region and the world.