Younten Tshedup  

As the world continues to suffer from the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic with casualties soaring over 1.6 million people worldwide, Bhutan has been fairly safe from the pandemic.

Ten months after the detection of the first Covid-19 positive case in the country, the country has recorded just over 440 positive cases so far. This is a massive achievement given the close proximity of the country to the two epicentres of the pandemic.

However, the bigger achievement is that there have been no deaths from the pandemic in the country so far. Also, despite a local transmission in Phuentsholing earlier in August, a full-blown outbreak was successfully averted.

Heading the containment efforts on the ground is the health ministry spearheaded by its minister. Hopping from one meeting to another, Lyonpo is seen in her comfortable sneakers, most of the time.

For all her efforts and in appreciation of the capable manner in which she performed her duties to safeguard the nation against the virus, His Majesty The King awarded the Sowai Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo with the red scarf during the 113th National Day.

But little did her father know that his daughter would be honoured with the Bura Marp, one of the most coveted civilian awards conferred by His Majesty The King to outstanding citizens.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo’s father, Pem Tshering, like most Bhutanese on the National Day was watching the live broadcast of the celebrations from Punakha at his home.

He said that about three years ago, he couldn’t imagine his daughter joining politics and then becoming a minister. “Today, she has made us all proud with her achievements. She has achieved so much for her age, and I only wish her to continue going forward with the same spirit and commitment.”

He said that his daughter was a very meticulous person, and would have all her chores set beforehand. “While at home, when she’s not busy with her son, she loves decorating the house and takes extra care and interest in it.”

The same nature could be observed this year during the pandemic response as the minister, according to her staff, would personally make sure the planned activities were implemented.

She would also draft some of the proposals for the ministry herself. But this came naturally to her as her father describes Lyonpo of being a smart and particular person since childhood. “She also performed well in academics.”

After completing Class X from Yangchenphug School, Lyonpo went to the United States for her graduation.

Her knowledge as a public health expert (global health epidemiology) was one of the country’s biggest assets during the fight against the pandemic. Health officials said critical decisions could be made and implemented at the earliest during the pandemic as the head of the institution was an expert on the subject.

Unbecoming of a politician, the minister is also known for giving her honest and sometimes blunt feedback and opinion to the others.

According to Lyonpo’s best friend, Pema Chhoden, “Never in my wildest dream did I imagine Dechen would join politics. She has no quality of a politician.”

She said, “When Dechen first told me that DNT approached her to join politics, I jokingly told her that she better be a minister or don’t join at all.”

Although of completely different characters, the two were friends since childhood. “As a child, she’d always been on the wilder side and me on the quieter side. We are of two totally different personalities but yet we’ve been friends for so long.”

She said that once, during the second day of school, Lyonpo picked up a fight with a boy. Lyonpo’s father said that as a child, she was very naughty and was always found fighting with the boys.

The minister also holds a black belt in taekwondo.

Pema Chhoden was the only tshogpa the minister had during her campaign in 2018. Sharing an incident during the campaign, she observed Lyonpo passionately talking to people about reforming the health system in the country.

“As a child, I don’t recall us talking about our ambitions. As an adult I think she is pursuing her ambition,” she said, adding that social work was always very close to the minister’s heart.

Lyonpo’s father said that after losing her mother to cancer, Lyonpo wanted to build a society that looked after and supported people affected with cancer and also improve cancer care and reduce the incidence of cancer in the country.

The health minister is the founder and former executive director of the Bhutan Cancer Society, a public benefit organisation established in 2015.

Besides the Covid-19 containment measures, this year the health ministry also introduced HPV vaccination for boys. As a part of the health flagship programme, the ministry has screened about 11,000 women for pap smear in Paro, Bumthang, Mongar, and Punakha so far.

“Dechen has made us all proud by receiving the red scarf from His Majesty. I could not think of a more deserving person for that honour,” said Pema Chhoden.

Although the two continue to share a very close friendship, Pema Chhoden said the ‘hangout’ duration has considerably dropped today. “We used to drive all the way to Paro just to get a bite, and go for long drives and hike every other day,” she said. “Now that she is a Lyonpo, she has much more responsibility and we hardly get time like before. I am happy she is serving the King, Country and the people.”

Whenever the two friends meet, they talk about home decors and designer bags.

Meanwhile, in the entire fight against the pandemic, the frontline institution, health ministry was also recognised for its contribution to the nation. His Majesty The King awarded the Druk Thuksey (the Heart-son of Bhutan) medal to the ministry in recognition of extraordinary services to the nation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was totally overwhelmed and my facemask was drenched with tears as I looked up to His Majesty in gratitude,” the Sowai Lyonpo said yesterday evening. Well-wishers and friends poured in to congratulate.

“I still fell lost and humble thinking of the moment.”