Male Iron Rat Year

Younten Tshedup 

At the beginning of 2020, the health ministry laid out a grand plan for the year to eliminate malaria, combat cancer, uplift hospitals, pay allowance for new mothers, and 1000+ programme for children.

The year of Rat instead ushered in a global pandemic and health personnel across the country lept into action. They remain on their toes as we run from the rat and enter the Year of the Female Iron-Ox.

Most importantly, 2020 would be remembered as a health-priority year, wherein saving lives won over livelihoods. The priority was clear for the health ministry.

For all its efforts in keeping the Bhutanese safe from the Covid-19 pandemic, the health ministry was accordingly recognised. During the National Day last year, His Majesty The King awarded the Druk Thuksey (the Heart-son of Bhutan) medal to the ministry in recognition of extraordinary services to the nation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Led by His Majesty in the forefront, the entire preparedness and response efforts in the fight against the pandemic was centred around the health ministry. With all the critics, Covid-19 pandemic response has so far been a success story in the country, even if its preparedness wasn’t as much.

Almost a year after recording the first positive case, the country has managed to keep the number of cases below 1,000. The ministry was lauded for ‘extra-carefully’ handling the first positive case in March and ensuring the health of those at home and abroad.

Guided by His Majesty The King, the resource constraint country managed to send repatriation flights to bring home Bhutanese stranded abroad. Massive and aggressive testing has been the health ministry’s number one weapon in this fight.

Many today describe the ministry’s approach in handling the pandemic as clinical in nature. 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 Sowai Lyonpo (Health Minister) Dechen Wangmo has always been evidence-based. Observers say it was a fear tactic.

However, it was easier said than done. The ministry during the initial days was not only fighting the pandemic but also disinformation and fake news.

Marathon of press briefings and ‘fact checks’ were held to counter disinformation spreading online. Access to information for the media, which initially did well, began to suffer towards the end of the year.

Although adherence to the public health safety measures was better among Bhutanese compared to other countries in the region and globally, complacency gradually crept in. The drive to make people realise the importance of these measures continues today.

The health ministry also made some hard decisions. Two nationwide lockdowns were imposed in August and December as the country witnessed two episodes of local outbreak of the disease.

Despite numerous challenges, the two lockdowns served its purpose, at least in breaking the chain of the transmission.

Sowai Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo was also recognised for her leadership and contribution in the fight against the pandemic. For all her efforts and in appreciation of the capable manner in which the minister performed her duties to safeguard the nation against the virus, His Majesty The King awarded Lyonpo with the red scarf during the 113th National Day.


The ministry’s initial plans

If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, the ministry had outlined ambitious plans in the year of the rat.

Strengthening primary health facilities with additional endoscopy and ultrasound services, taking cervical cancer programme nationwide, and paying allowance to breastfeeding mothers were on the top on the long list the health ministry drew up for 2020.

The pandemic derailed much of the plans just when activities were being implemented. The breastfeeding allowance pledge that falls under the Accelerating Mother and Child Health (AMCH) – 1,000 Golden Day Plus programme came to a halt.

The AMCH programme was to be rolled out in August 2019, but owing to resource constraints, the programme was deferred to March last year. Before the Gross National Happiness Commission could approve the policy for the reform, the pandemic struck the country.

Despite the challenges that the pandemic posed, the health ministry managed to introduce the comprehensive cervical cancer screening programme across the country. Additional X-ray and ultrasound machines were placed in the remote health centres taking the coverage of this service to almost 90 percent today.


Other achievements

Despite the nationwide lockdowns, the ministry managed to keep the essential medical services running uninterrupted across the country.

Amid initial hiccups, services like mother and child care, immunisation, reproductive health, emergencies, care for vulnerable populations including persons with disabilities and medication for ongoing management of chronic diseases including mental health continued to be available in all health centres.

Also, if not for the pandemic, some of the ministry’s initiatives would not have happened. The ministry managed to line-list the vulnerable section of the population (infants and those above 60 years) in different dzongkhags.

Counsellors received more attention than ever as mental health issues started troubling people. Handwashing received a big boost and from a public health measure to prevent communicable diseases, it has today become a lifesaving act.

In anticipation of a second wave of the pandemic, the ministry started the seasonal influenza vaccine for the entire population. Under the patronage of Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother, Gyalyum Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, the ministry in September last year launched the HPV vaccination for boys.

In the light of growing Noncommunicable diseases (NCD) in the country, NCD screening services for the civil servants was also launched in September.

The ministry has also finished detailing plans for a nationwide Covid-19 vaccination by the end of next month.