Some days back, I was talking to my sister in the village. She said she was busy packing rice. I asked if she was going to send me some local red rice to supplement my rice stock. “No”, she said. “Many people in our village have volunteered to contribute 20 dreys of rice to the government to show our solidarity during these difficult times.” And she told me of other villages in the dzongkhag making similar contributions.
“Everyone here in the village wants to do something,” she said. “These are difficult, uncertain times but it is always heartening to see our King on the frontline; it makes us want to do something.” I couldn’t agree more. These are times that call for everyone to do their bit. The quantum of contribution does not matter, but the gesture of solidarity does, immensely.
In one of its recent posts, Kuensel shared the story of a farmers’ group in Tsirang contributing a tonne of assorted vegetables to the government. Another group from Samtse brought huge quantities of fresh vegetables, butter and cheese for the 1,500 or so army personnel and TTI (Technical Training Institutes) trainees and instructors constructing temporary shelters at Ammo-chu. These temporary shelters will house thousands of Bhutanese living across the border who were recently evacuated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 1,300 soldiers from the Royal Bhutan Army have been deployed to carry out the construction upon the command of His Majesty The King.
When Bhutan started mass quarantining, several hotels and resorts came forward to offer their properties for use as quarantine facilities. And the government has reciprocated their goodwill by paying them enough to at least pay their staff salaries and monthly loan installments. This is a great example of a win-win arrangement for multiple parties under the current circumstances.
Expressions of gratitude and gratefulness from those in quarantine and isolation are aplenty in the media, particularly in social media. A student who returned from India and now in quarantine expresses how he couldn’t believe that he would be checking into a resort room for quarantine without having to spend a penny from his pocket. A businessman comes live on Facebook regularly and updates his friends on his daily meals and other facilities he is enjoying in quarantine; he expresses how fortunate he feels to be a Bhutanese. A student who returned from the UK and tested positive while in quarantine, in a letter to Kuensel from her hospital isolation ward wrote thus: “I have received the best medical treatment possible from our doctors and have faced no issues whatsoever in the seven days that I have been here. I am extremely grateful…”.
Grateful we are and will be, now and much beyond this pandemic; quarantine facilities across the country provide free meals, Wi-Fi internet and cable TV, all paid for by the State. The State also provides free testing for those with symptoms and those completing quarantine, and free medical treatment for all those who test positive. For those in quarantine and isolation needing counselling services, that too is provided, free of cost. As I write this, there are some 3,500 people in quarantine facilities in different parts of the country being looked after similarly.
On the command of His Majesty The King, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service launched Chik-Thuen, a live entertainment TV show. Chik-Thuen provides entertainment, mainly for those in quarantine, and engages various artists from Bhutan’s entertainment industry. The program also includes sessions on yoga in the morning.
Bhutan is not a rich country, but Bhutanese are known for having generous hearts, especially in difficult times. This is evident from the contributions people and institutions are making to His Majesty’s Kidu (Wellbeing) Fund and the government’s COVID-19 Respond Fund. From farmers to Foundations, MPs to judges, businesses to the Bhutanese diaspora, civil servants to corporate employees, everyone wants to contribute something.
Many people and agencies are working round the clock since the pandemic struck. The coronavirus pandemic is a new global problem and no country was prepared for it. We either learn on the job or from the experience of others before us who have dealt with the virus. In that context, our health officials did a fantastic job.
We rejoiced when we recently heard the news of our first COVID-19 patient (who had underlying conditions) having recovered from the disease back home in the US. We also rejoiced when the group of health professionals who were involved in the treatment of our first patient came out of their 14-day quarantine, unaffected by the virus. They are Bhutan’s first lot of COVID-19 heroes who are now training other health officials in the country.
On March 6, when the Prime Minister addressed the nation on the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the country, he said that His Majesty The King was at the Health Ministry office throughout the night when the 76-year-old American tourist was diagnosed with the disease. In the subsequent days, we heard that His Majesty commanded the foreigner-patient be shifted from the isolation ward to a suite room in the hospital. We also heard that His Majesty sent personal gifts to the patient.
As of yesterday, Bhutan has only five confirmed cases of the coronavirus of which two have recovered, and thankfully no deaths. This speaks volumes about how we responded to this pandemic thus far.
When schools and colleges around the country closed for the fear of mass infection, our education fraternity quickly responded. They came up with innovative ideas using technology to continue teaching-learning activities and to keep our students engaged. While we later realized that there were issues of disparity in terms of affordability and access, there is appreciation that the system responded promptly. Time loss was something we could not afford, especially when hundreds of thousands of students and teachers were in their homes not knowing what to do.
Thanks to His Majesty The King that over two thousand teachers are now undergoing a three-week De-suung training program that focuses on public health and security concerns. They would be deployed to support health workers in combatting COVID-19, if the need arises.
On the day the first confirmed case in Bhutan was announced, there was a great degree of panic buying. It appeared as if we waited till that day to do our groceries and fuel our cars. Shops, even in the capital, ran out of face masks and hand sanitizers. A few days later, the government started distributing free hand sanitizers prepared by our hospitals to the public.
With just five confirmed cases, the pandemic itself has not hit us hard so far. And it’s everybody’s hope that it stays put there. His Holiness The Je-Khenpo recently conferred wang-lung (blessings and oral transmission) of Sangay Menlha (Medicine Buddha) live through BBS TV channels and social media platforms; thousands of devotees received the initiation. Monks and nuns confine themselves to their monasteries, conducting prayers every day for the nation’s safety.
Much of what we do today is preventive and preparatory in nature, not only for the COVID-19 disease but for a host of related issues that could confront us as a nation in the weeks and months ahead. And that is where leadership and vision matter the most. It is one thing to solve the known problems we have at hand, quite another to anticipate and prepare for the unknown. The latter, in particular, calls for wisdom, foresight and resolve in our leadership.
We are seeing before our eyes how leadership defines destinies of countries in the face of adversities.
That the Kings of Bhutan provide extraordinary leadership and vision, particularly in times of difficulties, is a fact etched in the pages of history and not unknown to any. Indeed, it is a blessing the Bhutanese people cherish every single day. And the visionary and selfless leadership His Majesty The King is providing to keep our country and people safe and secure in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic are chapters for history books of the future.
Bhutan is also blessed, particularly for the current times, that we have a Doctor Prime Minister at the helm of governance and two other health professionals in the Cabinet. Much of what the government did in the weeks and months before the first positive case of the coronavirus was detected in Bhutan on March 5 seem to have been well vetted and planned. And much of what the government is currently doing seems to be going well too, considering the complexity of the problem. “I complained that I had no shoes until the day I met a man with no feet,” a proverb goes. Sometimes the best way to gauge ourselves is to look at others.
Given the special commercial and strategic consideration of Phuentsholing, His Majesty visited the town five times in less than three weeks after the first confirmed case was reported in the country. During one such visit, His Majesty commanded officials here to discuss every possible scenario that could emerge because of the pandemic, and to have detailed plans to deal with any scenario that might unfold. “Should a situation arise, we should have thought about it,” His Majesty had commanded. “And go down to every last detail of your plans.” The following day, His Majesty left Phuentsholing for a tour of the other southern and eastern Dzongkhags even as Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen was expecting delivery of the second Royal baby any moment. It reminded me of the maxim “family before self, community before family and country before community.”
A few days later, on March 19, the nation celebrated the news of the birth of our second Prince.
Upon His Majesty’s Command, a high-level COVID-19 Task Force was constituted and a Control Centre was established at the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS); the Task Force is headed by two government secretaries. Drawing from His Majesty’s vision, the day-to-day work of the Task Force centers around three key areas of concern- infection control, economy (supply chain) and security. As a gateway to the rest of the country, and being right on the border with India, the issues to deal with in Phuentsholing are myriad, particularly with India under lockdown. However, it is reassuring that the Government of India has given highest assurances of support to Bhutan, and its machineries in Bhutan and the counterparts across the border are providing all possible support.
As a country, we would be learning many lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. One lesson we are surely learning is that we need to work hard; we have unimaginable opportunities to do better and become stronger. During one of the visits to the Control Centre, His Majesty said that if all of us worked the way we do today, Bhutan could become a first-world country in 10 years. This is a powerful food-for-thought.
COVID-19 is not a done deal yet, and there is no crystal ball that can tell us of what is coming in the weeks and months ahead. Given our geographic and economic realities, so much also depends on how the situation evolves in the neighbourhood. However, if how we have responded collectively to the pandemic thus far is any indication, there is reason for hope and optimism. As His Majesty has always reminded us, nothing can destroy us if we are united internally. And it is this sense of unity and solidarity we are seeing today in our country. From the Government to the Opposition, monks to millionaires, villagers to volunteers and public servants to private citizens, we are all in it together. Tackling COVID-19 in Bhutan has become a “whole-of-nation” project, inspired and driven by the visionary and selfless leadership provided by His Majesty The King.
It is not my intention to paint a rosy picture of the situation through this article when we know it is not as rosy. However, it is important that we recognize our society’s collective blessings and see the bright spots in our systems, especially during such difficult times. We win by focusing on our strengths and strengthen ourselves by building on our weaknesses; and for any nation, there cannot be a bigger strength than a “whole-of-nation” strength to sail through turbulent times.
(The views expressed are solely that of the Author)