We Bhutanese have been extremely lucky to have a leader who took appropriate actions and most importantly a timely one. The result is a country without a single case of community spread. While the world is suffering from lockdowns, Bhutan has been enjoying a completely different environment, it is almost surreal. The credit goes solely to His Majesty The King for his farsightedness, compassion, courage and relentless focus to keep the disease out. If only countries could replicate Bhutan’s measures, the pains of their lockdown could have been avoided. Unfortunately, this window of opportunity appears to have closed.

While countries around the world struggle to find a meaningful balance between lockdown and normalcy, Bhutan has managed to avoid a complete lockdown. Our entire efforts have been targeted to keep the virus locked out at all cost. The length to which the country has gone to keep the virus at bay has been the key to our success. We had to make sacrifices but these efforts are clearly paying back. Not having to enforce a complete lockdown has minimised disruptions, allowing much of the country to carry on with almost normal day to day activities, thus protecting the livelihood of countless people and their jobs. Although the effects of shutting down our borders have been hard for many sectors, a full lockdown as evidenced everywhere is just too devastating and unsustainable. Half the country working is by any means much preferred over an entire closed nation. We have been hit hard, but we are far from crippled.

Covid-19 has been so swift and devastating that even the most advanced countries have botched their containment efforts. How Bhutan has tackled this fast moving enemy is by being agile. We clearly lack sufficient capacities at our healthcare facilities and our financial resources look like a drop in the ocean when compared to the amount other countries have allocated in their fight against the disease. We cannot even comprehend the amount that India and the US committed to tackle Covid-19, which could possibly keep  Bhutan comfortably going for the next 1,000 years. As a small country, we have been forced to live with several deficiencies and everyone knows how vulnerable we are. To survive, we had to be clever and fast. We were able to take some crucial initial steps without delays. By quickly shutting our borders, opening quarantine centres, and strengthening our border controls, we managed to outpace Covid-19. Defying norms, Bhutan initiated a mandatory 21 days quarantine against the recommended 14. This further fortified our defences and we have effectively managed to halt the virus at our very doors.

Now that we have managed to keep the virus at bay, some would argue against the need for maintaining the existing restrictions within the country. In absence of a community spread, why enforce policies that stifle our economy? The answer is that our country appears to be trying to strike a good balance. The strategy Bhutan seems to be pursuing is to keep as much of the economic activities running, while ensuring that any possible outbreak is limited and quickly contained. Unfortunately, it is clear that no prescribed recipe or a blueprint exists for such an action plan. Every country has been pretty much dealing in its own unique ways and in the manner that best suits the situation within the country. What is important for Bhutanese is to understand that when countries talk about relaxing social distancing, they are likely discussing a situation not even close to how restricted Bhutan is right now. The reason countries are trying so hard to come back to normal, despite grave risks, is based on their prevailing political, economic and social situation. As Bhutan ponders on additional relaxations, it comes at the cost of undoing everything that we have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to be still standing. God forbid, if Covid-19 ever gains a foothold in Bhutan, life as we are familiar with today will change completely.

As we witness the incessant pounding of the virus on our doors, with ever increasing force, we are faced with few choices. One choice is to maintain the status quo by keeping up with the existing measures and aim for sustenance until a viable treatment or a vaccine arrives. Meanwhile, we dig deep into our reserves, provide subsidies and create alternate employment opportunities. The down side to this is, as people start to get tired of the long drawn restrictions, we tend to become complacent and impatient, similar to a condition coined as lockdown fatigue. Our people may start to take unsafe actions either out of desperation or frustration or only an inconvenience. Many offices are already known to have closed their work from home facilities, and our vegetable markets are getting increasingly crowded by the day.  The other bolder choice is to take a calculated risk and open up some more economic activities such as restarting schools and allowing construction workers from India. This could be short lived. If the virus enters the country then we will be forced to take extreme measures and enforce complete lockdowns which can be even more devastating. Any Covid-19 case in a boarding school will be a potential replica of the struggle inside the unfortunate Diamond Princess cruise ship. The third unthinkable choice is to open everything up and hope for herd immunity as initially suggested by some. Without a vaccine, achieving herd immunity remains out of reach.

Ultimately, we will be forced to make a choice. Whatever choices we make, it will have implications and will certainly come at the cost to human lives. Any choice we make today has to be weighed against the likelihood of lost lives. We will be able to rebuild our economy, but we can never bring back our loved ones.

Contributed by

Namgay Phuntsho

Babena, Thimphu