There is no better way to remember 2020 than the picture of a dangerous virus that shut the whole world down completely. But we have achieved a lot more as a nation even with so many restrictions and challenges. The virus will mutate and threats will only grow. This is the new reality, but knowing where we fell short and did well, the future looks good. We are a nation that has always had the advantage to draw useful lessons and put them into good purpose.
Gone is the hairy and pestiferous rat that brought the pandemic. What we make of the new year, the year of the female iron ox, is upon us square and fair. In other words, we have in our hands entire what to make of our future. That means we have challenge galore to meet.
Early in the year that we just left behind, schools had to be shut after the first Covid-19 positive case.
That meant contact-teaching had to be immediately replaced by online or e-learning. As expected, we were met with myriad challenges. When orders came to close the school on March 18, we found that our teachers were not prepared and struggled to deliver lessons. For many students, online education proved to be expensive, as they could not afford the required gadgets. But education had to go on, even with modification in syllabus and assessment procedures. Self-learning materials had to be printed and delivered to the remote schools that had no access to e-learning. Class X and XII students are yet to sit board exams.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been on the employment sector. Immediately after the first coronavirus positive cases in the country, 11,235 Bhutanese lost their jobs, mostly in the tourism sector. By July, the number of joblessness in the country, compounded by those who had to return from overseas, had reached more than 30,000. By December, more than 10,000 foreign workers had left the country, creating a serious shortage of skilled workers in the construction sector. Efforts had to be made to bring in skilled foreign workers and train Bhutanese jobseekers to fill the vacuum through Build Bhutan Project and other entrepreneurship and activation programmes.
As nationwide lockdown had to be imposed—first in August 11 for 21 days and, second, on December 20—we found ourselves ill-prepared on many fronts. The same challenges that the people faced kept repeating such as shortage of vegetables and poor service delivery. But we also learnt that for service delivery system to improve in the future it is critically important to restructure the way we organise our society. Lack of data and duplication of responsibilities continued to unfold, leaving the stranded people locked in for a long time without adequate services.
All in all, however, Bhutan managed to handle the pandemic very well. When the countries around the world were struggling with daily rise in the Covid-19 positives cases and deaths (in thousands), Bhutan went about handling the situation in an orderly manner, which is evident from the total number of Covid-19 positive cases (less than 900) and death (one) in the country so far. In Bhutan, the entire nation was involved in fighting the pandemic. Health and safety protocols are taken seriously and farmers and volunteers step in to keep the supply chain uninterrupted.
But Bhutan achieved all these only because of the exemplary leadership of His Majesty The King who personally visited the border towns to educate the people and to ensure that safety measures are in place. Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu came to the rescue of many who lost their livelihoods. Food and other essentials were directly delivered to those in need.
Now that vaccine has started arriving, the government will begin the vaccination campaign right after (expected next month) we have the targeted 533,000 doses for all the eligible people in the country. That, however, does not mean that the threats of Covid-19 outbreak won’t be there. It only means that we will have reduced the danger significantly. If at all “old normal” returns, it will be a long time. In other words, we will still have to wear face masks and follow the health protocol such as physical distancing and hand washing, among others, strictly.
But then, more important, we have learnt some critical lessons. What we now need to do to build a strong and resilient society is spelt well in the Royal Kasho issued to the people of Bhutan on December 17 at the Punakha Dzong.