In early February, while returning home from an overseas trip, I was in Bangkok for few days. With confirmed Covid-19 cases in Thailand, there was much panic in the air in the otherwise vibrant city. It was indeed a huge relief arriving home in serene environment from all that vulnerability in Bangkok. Little did I expect the virus would follow soon. A month after my return, on March 6 the first case was reported in Bhutan when a 76-year-old tourist tested positive. As a landlocked, secluded country, we did not expect to be affected too soon and we were least prepared to deal with the global pandemic.
Shortly after the nation was informed, Thimphu ran out of facemasks and hand sanitizers and many were seen rushing with panic shopping and fuelling up their vehicles. Anyone with flu-like symptoms was feared and became a suspect. The capital became a dreaded place to visit for people from other parts of the country. Sharing an open border with India and many Bhutanese returning home from highly infected countries made us even more vulnerable.
Travel bans hit the hospitality and tourism industry the hardest, hundreds were likely to go bankrupt, thousands were likely to lose their jobs and income of many related sectors got affected. As borders got sealed, locals started worrying about daily basic necessities. The uncertainty and darkness was looming large in an otherwise peaceful, happy country with helplessness and fear aggravated by numerous bad news stories all over social and international media.
Facing the reality of impermanence and vulnerability reminded me of my own past experience while battling cancer. In such circumstances, the uncertainty and vulnerability of our lives, which while taking us through a dark phase can also, leave a positive impact. It encourages us to be more human, more kind to others, slow down, review our lives and perspective and reflect on our priorities in life. I concluded this was going to be the biggest transformational period for the nation. It was going to be a period of reflection besides hoping for the best and being prepared for the worst.
Amidst the dark clouds appeared His Majesty The King like the sun brightening the dark skies and bringing smile and hope on the face of every Bhutanese. Selflessly leading and guiding from the front, His Majesty made the safety of Bhutanese citizens a top priority and in no time measures were put in place to safeguard the people of Bhutan. His Majesty The King further urged the people to remain united and support one another and to take care of the elderly population. With immeasurable burden, concern and worry, His Majesty The King travelled the length and breadth of the country comforting people, checking on our preparedness and strategizing our way forward.
With the formulation of a National Preparedness and Response Plan and emergency committee, the strategies started rolling out with daily updates, bulletins, press briefings to keep citizens well informed, barring tourists, closure of schools and institutions, closure of all entertainment places, gyms, closure of all businesses by 7pm, advocacy on hand hygiene and physical distancing, discouraging gatherings and groups, introduction of flexible working hours and working from home for government and corporate offices.
Thousands of Bhutanese were evacuated from Australia, the Middle East, India, Singapore, and Thailand in chartered flights and was put under mandatory quarantine for 21 days in tourist hotels and resorts with all expenses borne by the government. Under Royal Command, Royal Bhutan Army built temporary homes for the thousands of Bhutanese evacuees who live across the border. The border with India has also been temporarily closed.
Despite being an aid-dependent country, in line with our free universal health care, all confirmed positive cases including foreign nationals have been provided free testing and medical services. Besides bearing expenses for all meals by the State at the designated quarantine and isolation facilities, free rapid test is conducted for thousands of Bhutanese after completion of their 21-day quarantine or anyone who is symptomatic, or has come into contact with confirmed cases. Psychological First Aid and counselling services are also provided free of cost to those in quarantine and isolation.
Given the vulnerability of senior citizens, our King has even gone to extent of providing vitamins and hand sanitizers to senior citizens across the country. Chik-Thuen, a live entertainment TV programme engaging various Bhutanese artists was launched in addition to yoga and spirituality sessions to provide entertainment, for those in quarantine as well as those staying home. Hand sanitizers were distributed for free across the country and hand-washing stations installed at various locations. The school children are also kept engaged through e-learning initiatives and innovative ideas using technology.
Deeply inspired and motivated by His Majesty The King’s selfless leadership, Bhutanese citizens from all walks of life have come forward to support the government’s response towards the pandemic and in sharing the burden. Short-term monetary relief is provided to all sectors with deferment of loans and waiver of loan-interest for three months for which 50 percent of the interest is paid by government and the remaining 50 percent is waived by the financial Institutions.
Furthermore, besides providing working capital to tourism related sectors at concessional interest rates, support continues to be granted in assisting businesses and local production, including RNR activities. Employees laid off by affected sectors are provided adequate monetary support under His Majesty’s Kidu Relief programme. His Majesty’s wisdom and guidance has largely reduced the impact of social and economic consequences associated with the pandemic in the country.
The prime minister and health minister, both with public health background, have played an effective role in our response and preparedness. Members of Parliament have donated one month’s salary to the response effort while businesses and citizens in the country and abroad have made cash contributions to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund and the government’s COVID-19 Respond Fund. Private hoteliers have offered their properties to be used as quarantine facilities for free, farmers and farming cooperatives have offered agricultural and farm products, retailers and shops have offered mineral water, juices to those in quarantine while Desuups have come out in large numbers to work in the frontline right from receiving in-bound travellers at the airport to manning quarantine facilities, stacking of essential goods, carrying out advocacy programmes to patrolling day and night to ensure the safety of the people and to prevent community transmission. Institutions and volunteers have been providing meals, personal protective equipment and free life insurance to those working at the frontline, which includes the health workers, army, police, civil servants, airline/airport staff and Desuups. All political parties, including the opposition party, provide their appreciation and support while in other counties the situation is getting politicized.
Led by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the Central Monastic Body and religious institutions have been performing daily prayers for Bhutan, including the nine-day Medicine Buddha prayer along with 300 monks, to keep us safe from the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of Bhutanese also received the blessings and oral transmission of Medicine Buddha from His Holiness through TV channels and social media platforms and every day thousands of monks, nuns and citizens across the country conduct daily prayers for the nation’s safety and well-being. With many hoping return to normalcy soon, citizens are also helping deter and prevent the spread of the disease with responsible behaviour by staying at home, avoiding crowds, isolating if unwell and practicing hand hygiene and physical distancing.
Over the last few months, just as life has drastically changed around the world, life has also changed in Bhutan. Despite all the challenges and a wave of negative consequences associated with Covid-19, there has also been some positive outcome at both individual and national level. People have been reminded about the inescapable truth of impermanence and prompted to follow hygienic practices, work-life balance, human connection, spirituality, diet, exercise, enabling us to re-evaluate our lives and perspective and, above all, trading one’s comfort for greater good.
There are also many lessons to be drawn as a nation. As His Majesty The King rightly stated nothing can destroy us if we are united internally and that we can overcome any challenge if we work in the spirit of cooperation and unity. The shared adversity has fostered a strong sense of community and affinity which can be masked in normal times. Thus, given the strong sense of national solidarity exhibited by all sections of the society, Bhutan has done extremely well in our collective response and efforts in dealing with the pandemic.
The division along party lines, income, gender and background has blurred and we are inspired to focus on a common element for our greater good.
Today, our nation seems more united and in solidarity than ever before since the health of each other depends on the other, and we must stand together in unity and solidarity. With thousands of Bhutanese returning home from across the globe, this is probably the only time when almost the entire population is residing in the country leading to reunion of families, spouses, relatives and friends. This is also the most opportune time for us to strategize on creating ample work opportunities to retain our local skills and talent.
Another realization for every Bhutanese is the deep sense of pride and gratitude living through extraordinary times under extraordinary leader who inspires us to play our part for our collective well-being. In 2003, Bhutan created history in the world when His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo selflessly led our army to the battlefield at a time when rulers remain in their comfort zone. His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo flushed out insurgents from the neighbouring countries taking shelter in the Bhutanese soil, who were armed with modern weapons, with minimum casualties on both sides. Today, we have witnessed another act of bravery and unparalleled service to the nation, with His Majesty The King at the forefront fighting a deadlier enemy, which has proved more dangerous than any armed enemy.
The high-pressure crisis is bringing out the best, and worst in national leaders, and many countries around the world are lacking good leadership in dealing with social and economic consequences of Covid-19 exposing their very essence. But we in Bhutan are blessed with probably the best leader in the world with His Majesty The King providing extraordinary leadership and vision to keep Bhutan and its people safe from this pandemic, exuding genuine love, concern and compassion for his citizens yet filled with so much humility and grace while leading effectively in this unprecedented moment.
Our country is standing out in the world in our fight against Covid-19 and our leader, His Majesty The King, is standing out as the best leader in the world. We are indeed living extraordinary times under an extraordinary leader.
Druk Phuensum Tshogpa