Tashi Dema and Younten Tshedup 

In the last nine days,  466,811  people have received the Covishield (AstraZeneca) vaccination, which is 85 percent of the eligible population and 62 percent of Bhutan’s total population.

This is a success by any standard, commended by observers and a comfort to all living in Bhutan. But health experts, both global and Bhutanese, warn that this could be misunderstood as a higher level of protection than it actually is. Bhutanese are not yet safe from the pandemic.

“With increasing cases in the region, the growing number of cases in India and a spike Bangladesh which has declared a lockdown from tomorrow, we have to be careful. We must practice the safety precautions,” said a health advisor.

There are already signs of complacency and carelessness in public behaviour in Bhutan. Perhaps stemming from a sense of relief after receiving the first dose of the vaccine, many people are not following health protocols that are vital to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This includes a relaxation of masks, social distancing, as well as public gatherings.

“Very few people are following the health protocols seriously, including physical distancing,” said one Thimphu city resident. “Hand-washing taps in front of shops and public places are not in use anymore. People have forgotten the hand sanitisation and hand-washing protocols.”

Many people assume they do not have to wear facemasks after receiving the Covid-19 jab. A corporate employee cited his own example, because he doesn’t feel the need to take a facemask when he leaves home anymore. “I feel I’m safe after the vaccination. Everyone must be feeling the same.”

Some people are known to have said that only those who have not been vaccinated should wear the facemask. “Many of us assume we’re now safe from novel coronavirus,” said a senior public servant.

Although it is a general belief that life will normalise once everyone receives the second dose of vaccination and the country achieve sherd immunity experts warn that even the best vaccines leave five percent of vaccinated people susceptible and the vaccine won’t protect people from the Coronavirus permanently.

World’s Health Organisation’s (WHO) country representative in Bhutan, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said the vaccination needed to happen in all countries with good coverage to ensure some relaxation and return to normal ways. However, he said that the vaccine alone was not adequate protection from the virus. “We still don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last and also how the disease will evolve.”  He said people will have to adhere to measures such as using face masks, avoiding crowds, and regular hand washing.

The health ministry’s technical advisory group has repeatedly informed the public that, while the vaccine will ensure a level of protection, it won’t be until the second dose of the vaccine was delivered to the entire eligible population. The second dose for Bhutan, for now, is tentatively scheduled eight to 12 weeks after the first dose.

Officials said that only after the delivery of the second dose of the vaccine, and a cushion period of two weeks, would an individual be considered fully vaccinated.  This means that things would return to ‘normal’ only towards the end of June or the beginning of July.

Health ministry officials said that complacency was always a concern. “As always, our porous borders remain the biggest challenge. With increasing cases in India, if we aren’t careful and let our guard down at this stage, it could be a waste of all our efforts against the pandemic so far.”