Covid-19 has killed hundreds of thousands and upended the lives of millions more. However, it is also teaching us lessons, while revealing the strength of our people and inspiring fresh thinking about our nation’s future. I listened to people from all walks of life regarding this unprecedented pandemic; from friends, relatives, families, office colleagues and people on the streets. I wish to share with you the five most inspiring stories I encountered. Their stories made me realise some things with relevance not only to our country’s current struggle with the pandemic, but also to our country’s future. To these five insights, I also add a sixth: My own thoughts on the raging debate about reopening schools in Bhutan as this is the most discussed topic today, not only in our local streets but all the way to the parliament.
I will start with Pema Yangchen, a school teacher in Paro, who shared that Covid-19 has given her the opportunity to teach her students through digital platforms. “Suddenly the efficacy of e-learning is on everyone’s lips. Now we need to build this practice into our education system. ” I am reminded that His Majesty the King of Bhutan has emphasized the need to apply digital technologies to improve our people’s lives. This is an opportunity for our country’s brilliant minds in the technology and education sectors to provide solutions that will serve Bhutan and countries beyond, thus answering His Majesty’s call to bring the benefits of digital technologies to the people.
Meme Phuntso from Trongsa feels that this has been the best time of his life. Though he did not understand the purpose of closing schools for so long, he is happy seeing his grandchildren siting around him all the time to listen to his folktales. His grandchildren reinvigorate his memory by demanding more stories and bombarding him with questions. According to Meme Phuntsho, the bond he has developed with his family during this time is a memorable part of his life, and it shall remain close to his heart. His story reminds us of two important things: First, that even as our younger generations busily pursue progress, we should always reserve time for the older members of our families and communities. Our communal and familial bonds keep our nation strong amid challenges. And second, our folktales can still captivate our youth despite competition from digital entertainment. We should cherish these nuggets of our rich culture even as we transition to a future dependent on digital technology.
According to Lam Gayleg from Zhemgang, the Covid-19 crisis reminds us about the fickleness of life. “It’s only through awareness and inner psychology that we can handle such uncertainties. Covid-19 is a reminder to invest not just in your body (physical training) and intellect (books), but in mastering your inner psychology.” On shortages of foods and essential items in the markets, Lam Gayleg reminds us to develop a mindset of abundance, not scarcity. Uncertainty is a cold, hard truth of life. As Bhutan’s economic status improves every year, our younger generations are less exposed to past hardships that toughened prior generations of Bhutanese, whose resilience allowed Bhutan to weather many storms. Our nation benefits if we can encourage everyone, especially the youth, to see this pandemic as an opportunity to develop inner strength.
A young nurse Lhamo from Lunana shares how she was able to convince the villagers on the importance of hand washing, which has been so difficult to promote there before. “People are very open to health awareness now and the situation has transformed their thinking about healthcare. Scientists and doctors all across the globe are striving hard to discover a vaccine for Covid-19 with no success so far. I wish people continue to practice this good habit. A simple hack for making your health twice better,” she concludes. Crises can result in something positive when they encourage people to accept good reforms that they rejected before. Inspired by Lhamo’s story, I enjoin people in all fields to ponder: “That great idea I had before that people did not accept, what if I try it again for the good of all?”
Ten-year-old Lhazin Tshomo stayed home during this lull period. However, she has discovered a new and fascinating passion, the art of weaving colorful kira. She proudly explains to her friends the key elements of techniques used to weave kira from threads. She can now describe the art of operating weaving tools, including the intricacy of blending colorful threads to produce beautiful patterns. Without the noise and pace of “normal” life, the pandemic is a chance for us to reconnect with the marvels of our rich culture.
These stories show our tremendous success in rising to the hard situation and transforming the crisis into something positive. This is possible because His Majesty the King continues to lead our fight against this pandemic. And we have blessings of the compassionate Je khenpo, and the solidarity of the masses rising to the call of the nation in such difficult times. Under the firm guidance of the Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering, who is himself a doctor, the government has succeeded in strengthening the trust of our people in our medical institutions. Thus, the public obeys government recommendations. Through an effective quarantine system and border control, Bhutan is doing well so far. We have an epidemiologist in our Health Minister to keep us informed on the ways to prevent spreading Covid-19 in communities. Their dynamic leadership deserves our gratitude.
However, a critical issue that remains unresolved is whether we should reopen schools. We need to balance between the risks and opportunities. I offer two points to think about. First, if the government decides to reopen schools, I believe it must restructure the school syllabus, which is designed for a full academic year, to suit this short academic session. Otherwise, having to teach so much in so little time will undermine the ability of our education system to deliver quality education. Second, if schools reopen, the mantras issued by the Health Ministry regarding physical distancing and disinfection, among others, must be strictly followed. Schools must plan new systems and implement practical measure to ensure that government guidelines are followed. It would help to require prior site inspections done by local authorities to ensure that the plans and practical measures of each school are up to par. There should also be continuous monitoring by authorities to ensure that schools and students continue to strictly follow the systems in place. This communication between schools and authorities also ensures that schools can voice out their difficulties and authorities can then respond to help. These measures are not only important for the safety of our schools, but for the health of the nation. There is no perfect strategy, and we can only make do with the information we have today. However, adhering to these practices will enable schools to stay open and complete the remaining academic year. Otherwise, we will have to close the gates midway and the students will not finish the academic year – and all of this will be for nothing.
Some of us may notice that the youth do not easily accept the traditional values and cultural teachings promoted by our old G’s, such as observing rituals and maintaining strict discipline while eating, talking, and dressing, among others. Judging by that trend, there may be cause to worry whether our youth will strictly follow all the guidelines from the health ministry. However, one thing is for certain in Bhutan, our hearts will beat together when we hear our king. Regardless of each person’s difficult situation, the resounding line we hear from the mass today, especially from the youth, is “we are emotionally, mentally and physically prepared to serve the king.” The unprecedented rise in the numbers of youth rushing to register for Desuups is one of the many outstanding examples demonstrated by our youth. With the right care and guidance, our youth will not disappoint us. Come what may, this GNH country is set to move forward undeterred beyond Covid-19.