National Solidarity: Bhutan’s unique response to the Covid-19 pandemic

The ongoing pandemic, which originated from a newly emerged coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, in December last year, to date has consumed the world with more than seventy plus million confirmed human infection cases and with over a million deaths across 210 countries and territories till date. Given its magnitude of impact on everything worldly from how we do business to how we socialise, the reflection of 2020 as sketched in our memories would not be complete without a mention of Covid-19 pandemic. 

As I draft this article, the world is bracing for yet another wave of the pandemic with, many countries now imposing more stringent national restrictions to break the chain of transmission. Amidst these adversities and inconveniences, we are also gearing up for yet another milestone in science and innovation, the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine. I say this as an unprecedented milestone because never before have we developed, approved and rolled out a new vaccine programme at this rate and scale in the history of mankind. More importantly, now with that acknowledgement and recognition on the efficient development of a vaccine, there is an undercurrent of concerns of global responsibility and solidarity to share access to vaccines for the benefit of humanity at large and not just for the benefit of individual nations. 

 Besides the unimaginable number of positive cases and premature deaths across all ages and countries, the pandemic has also grossly magnified the inequalities in access to healthcare, economic and social services across the world. With the exception of socialistic countries, where health services are protected and provided by the state, it will be a fair call to say that every family and individual at some point during this pandemic must have reassessed their health coverage and bank balances to ensure that the unexpected health expenses can be met without falling into bankruptcy.

 As we take stock of the impact of the pandemic across the world, it was evident that disparities in accessing diagnostic services and therapeutic care widened along the traditional faultline of socioeconomic status of a nation. Take for example access to Covid testing where, high-income countries undertake around hundred thousand plus tests per million population, whereas low-income countries are able to undertake only around few thousand tests per million population. The ability of low-and-middle-income countries to effectively contain the virus and stop it from spreading has been limited by their access to scalable, affordable, reliable and easy to use tests, in addition to having a weaker overall health system. Fortunately, Bhutan is an exception, regardless of our nation’s economic status, thanks to the benevolent and visionary leadership of our monarchs who have in the past and to this day, continue to prioritise health and education for the wellbeing of our people. With the unwavering support of our King, we have managed to enhance timely access to tests with an estimated testing rate of hundred thousand per million, which is comparable to many developed nations. 

 Considering the current scenario, gleam 2020 with re-emerging infections, uncertainty of viral behaviour and public pandemic fatigue creeping in, it seems like a distant dream when we welcomed the 2020, the year of the Male Iron Rat Year with renewed vigour, hope and aspirations. Today, as I write this under the morning winter sun beaming through my sheer curtain, I can’t help but be optimistic about Bhutan’s future, and that optimism is not because of the potential of the vaccine that I see in the horizon, but it is stemming from what we have achieved in the last one year as a Bhutanese citizen, thinking collectively, and working hand in hand and showcasing strong national solidarity, guided by unstinted devotion and love towards our King and the country.  

 Looking back amidst the pandemic, we have seen transformational change in the digital sectors, with schools closed, we had to adopt a new digital learning platform. Group of teacher volunteers worked with the Ministry of Education to usher in digital learning. Although few teething problems such as stark digital divide due to economic and social inequalities were revealed, nevertheless, the pandemic ignited an unprecedented digital revolution in the education sector. In addition, some few hundred teachers took upon themselves to “educate” their students beyond the traditional walls of the classroom by visiting homes and providing one to one time in open grounds. The pandemic was also a “mirror, mirror on the wall” moment for many of us, for the first time we Bhutanese had to take stock and reflect on the four three square meals that we took it for granted all our lives, the pandemic presented a strong reminder on self-sufficiency that has been the undercurrent agenda since the planned development first started in the 1960s. In an unmatched move, most of the urbanites, for example, picked up farming overnight, and the professional farmers regeared their approach towards mass farming with the aim to feed not only their family but the nation. These small catalytic milestones in the long run will not only put Bhutan on the path towards mindful, healthy and local food-consumption trends, ultimately resulting in good health outcomes and longevity, but also help us realise our longstanding national vision of food self-sufficiency. 

 Above all, the pandemic instilled in us the value of oneness and the centrality of health for any nation to move forward. It was a simple, yet an extraordinarily strong reminder that health and wellbeing cannot be taken for granted and that we must as a nation invest in building resilient health systems with equity in access. Above all this, what truly contributed to Bhutan’s response is the love and dedication that we all have for our beloved King and the country. I may not do justice in expressing that wave of emotion that we all as Bhutanese felt listening to His Majesty’s second National Address, with that heart-wrenching pause during the address. For that millisecond, all Bhutanese unanimously must have skipped a heartbeat and shed heartfelt tears of empathy. To me as we gear towards the National Day celebrations, it is that wave of emotion that I hope will continue to ignite as One Nation One people. 

 

A tribute to Tsa-Wa-Sum

There is a place we call home

A place that we so dearly love

A place that we uphold with all our might

There is a place we call home

The enlightened King to whom we offer our loyalty Blessed we are to enjoy unconditional love and kindness 

An omniscient character steering the way ahead

There is a place we call home

The blessed Nation that we hold holy

A sanctum, that we pay homage everyday

A precious jewel adorning the world in which we find happiness everyday

There is a place we call home

The compassionate people that we admire

Living in harmony and standing together in adversity Even in our weakest day, we draw strength 

from each other

There is a place we call home

Is the King, the Nation, and the People

The trinity of our strength and devotion, 

each answering the call of duty 

There is a place we call home

 

 

Contributed by

Dechen Wangmo

Minister of Health

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