Sowai Lyonpo shares her journey to the presidentship    

Younten Tshedup 

Donning her favourite pink tego, as she walked into the World Health Assembly (WHA) hall, a quick trip down memory lane overpowered her senses. “It was an emotional moment for me,” she said.

Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo, became the first Bhutanese to hold the presidency of the WHA, 39 years after Bhutan became a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Lyonpo was elected as the President of the WHA, the decision-making body of the WHO, during the inaugural session of the 74th WHA on May 24, earlier this year.

However, this was not the first time that Lyonpo had been to the WHA. As an undergraduate and a postgraduate student of public health, Lyonpo attended the Assembly twice some 10 years ago.

“As I walked into that big hall for my presidential speech this time, I looked up where I used to be seated as a student,” she said, adding that they used to be put up right up in a ‘near-celling’ gallery to observe the session.

Lyonpo said that as a public health student, it was a dream for every student to be a part of the WHA, where global health policies are tabled and formulated, and ambitious targets set to save humanity. “As I stood there and realised that I would be taking up the presidency, it was an emotional moment for me. It was a dream come true.”


What does this mean for Bhutan? 

The global health body, electing a Bhutanese to lead the WHA during a pandemic, speaks volumes in terms of the leadership the world is looking for.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that one of the major contributing factors in Bhutan’s successful response to the pandemic was the selfless and compassionate leadership of His Majesty The King and the Royal Family.

She said that the presidency, besides being a major achievement for her personally, was also a significant opportunity for Bhutan to showcase its contribution to the global and scientific communities.

“The compassionate leadership of His Majesty, the solidarity of our people, and the belief and trust in science and evidence-based interventions were our biggest strengths during the pandemic, which I got to share with the global leaders at the WHA. We are a small nation but with a big impact,” she said.

Lyonpo said that as the president of the WHA, besides the Covid-19 agenda, many other important health agendas for Bhutan were also shared at the sidelines of the Assembly.

HIV/AIDS was one of the major health agendas Lyonpo discussed bilaterally with development partners.

“Personally, I would not want to see a vertical transmission of HIV, which is HIV transmission from mother to child. A child born with HIV in today’s time, to me as a public health expert, is totally unacceptable,” she said. 

“This is a cause I’ve been working for the past 14 years and I want to ensure that Bhutan can attain zero vertical transmission, and this I would like to achieve during my tenure,” she said.


A destiny 

As the world struggles to free itself from the clutches of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lyonpo said that it was almost like a destiny for a Bhutanese to be elected as the president of the WHA.

She said that Bhutanese by nature are associated with being compassionate, empathetic, and someone who places someone else’s needs first to theirs. “These innate qualities and values are what the world needs today because at the end of the day it’s humanity that counts, and nothing else matters. The world can learn from Bhutan’s leadership, the leadership of His Majesty The King who is always concerned for the wellbeing of every individual in the country.”

Lyonpo said it was destiny that had placed her in that position to showcase to the world what Bhutan, guided by the farsighted leadership of His Majesty The King, has done so far, and what the world could learn from the tiny Himalayan Kingdom.

As she recalled her student days, watching the WHA from the near ceiling gallery, Lyonpo said: “To all public health students and health workers, dream big. The sky’s the limit. Anything is possible if your heart is in the right place.”

Edited by Tshering Palden