Disruption breaks us free  

To say that we live in disruptive times is an understatement.

With global Covid-19 case loads and fatalities increasing daily, Bhutan is confronting this pandemic that threatens the world as never before.

The recent weeks have been surreal with schools, offices, and borders closed. We practise physical distancing even as we try to understand this new viral threat. Our relationships are changing. Psychological first aid, quarantines, stock-piling of essential food items are new experiences, causing increased anxiety and tensions. We are torn between hope and fear, dread and optimism.

It’s been like tracking a disaster, and bracing ourselves for the worst to come. But thankfully for Bhutan, the leadership of His Majesty the King is compassion in action. The government’s swift precautionary measures and citizen’s actions are a reassurance. Bhutan has been able to conduct tests, provide adequate care, and contain community spread because of good planning and coordination.


Has Bhutan heeded warning signals?

The world has been given more than adequate global warnings that our pace of life and exploitation of the environment is no longer feasible. Yet the world chose to ignore the tsunamis, forest fires, the overwhelming pollution, and plastics threatening marine life. There’s the incessant production of cheap goods that overflow onto the pavements in Asia while the earth’s resources are plundered for quick profit.

Covid is not just a virus, it is the entire force of nature reacting to the giddy, exploitative nature of humanity. A teenager, Greta Thurnberg, sent a loud reminder when she led protests against the global systems that drive this untenable material world.

For small countries like Bhutan, we see the growing landfills of plastic, waste, mounds of empty beer bottles, traffic jams in Thimphu at peak hours, the increasing number of store shelves with junk food, artificial sweeteners, colouring and preservatives. We’re experiencing increased addiction, and employment has become an “issue”. Have we been fooling ourselves into thinking that Bhutan is safe from the problems of the world? Is Bhutan also falling into the trap of overt materialism? Perhaps Covid has pried open our systemic flaws?

If there’s one thing that will help Bhutan through these tumultuous times, it’s our instincts for survival, and innate goodness. We see the emergence of empathy, of volunteers coming forward, health staff risking their health to provide care for patients, businesses offering their hotels and services to quarantine returning Bhutanese and keeping price hikes at bay. Local initiatives like civil society members sewing masks, providing sanitation facilities, care-givers providing meals to hungry stray dogs, landlords waiving rents are all meaningful and important contributions by citizens for the common good. We realise the significance of community in an interconnected Bhutan, and a larger world.

Analysts around the world tell us that there will be no return to the old normal. In other words, even we in Bhutan should not expect to go back to pre-Covid times. As our policy-makers draft a new vision for Bhutan, we ask — How can Bhutan bring alive the essence of GNH to counter the world’s damaging GDP paradigms? How can Bhutan truly make GNH work in this vision for the future?  GNH has been relegated to a mere tagline without genuine implementation as the pressures of a GDP world insiduously take over in Bhutan.

Can we discover the possibilities of a self sufficient, healthy, compassionate, and environmentally vibrant Bhutan in 2050? And if this is our dream, what can we do to get there? Thousands of our family members have returned from abroad, and may not want to leave again if we can bring them into the fold of creating this future; to start afresh with opportunities for enterprise, innovation, agriculture, health, education.

Bhutan can create a new destiny. We’re just 750,000 people. A forest cover, connections with living beings and nature, our tradition of spiritual consciousness are the vital conditions of a GNH society. We can turn psychological first aid into psychological resilience.

These past months have exposed our vulnerability, and the consequence of society and governance. Bhutan is fortunate to have kidu as a traditional support system. Others have decided to go to the village to seek new possibilities with farming. The intrinsic goodness demonstrated across society leads me to believe that Bhutan need not be driven solely by the forces of business and capitalism. We’re too small to be aping nor reacting to the rest of the world. Bhutan can also work with our global partners and friends to create a saner, slower, more sustainable and climate conscious world.

So what will Bhutan be like after the pandemic?

Disruption breaks us free. Bhutan has the chance to discover, envision, and design a new social, economic, participatory and more equitable future placing people and the earth’s well-being at the centre of change.

We ask the government to include inter-generational members of the community; members of civil society, those with the hindsight of civil service, business, academia and youth to come forward to re-imagine Bhutan 2050. The government alone cannot implement change without co-creators and collaborators.

May these difficult times be over soon and may everyone stay healthy.  

Contributed by  SiokSian Pek-Dorji

Thimphu resident