With vaccination seen as the only solution to put an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus is now on securing the Coronavirus vaccine.
Many countries have started vaccinating their population. Besides scepticism, neighbouring India has approved the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, and a locally made vaccine, Covaxin. The government and health experts, on the command of His Majesty The King, has been working on vaccine procurement for the last seven months.
Keeping in mind that the country’s access to the Covid-19 vaccine is through the COVAX Facility, which would vaccinate only about 20 percent of the population, the government is exploring other possibilities to ensure that all the people in the country, including expatriates, are vaccinated.
Vaccinating the whole population is going to be expensive. The need is about a million dosages. The Oxford vaccine at today’s price roughly costs about Nu 200 to Nu 300 a dose. This would mean that the cost of vaccinating the population would come around Nu 200 or 300 million.
The amount may not look alarming, but at a time when our health system is overburdened by the pandemic and the economic growth is at its slowest, it is a lot of money. If the vaccines are made available, the priority is to roll it as soon as possible. Given our population, our requirement is not much, but the demand for cheaper and logistically convenient vaccines is from all over the world.
The government is ready with a procurement strategy, but not with the fund. Resources will be explored to shield the people from the virus. The government will beg or borrow to ensure that no Bhutanese are left out. It is in His Majesty’s wisdom that the burden of the pandemic should not be passed down to the people. Therefore, we have people living on kidus and economic measures.
However, the positive side is that Bhutanese are willing to share the burden. The pandemic has caused people to lose income and disrupted livelihood. But all are not in the same boat. There are many not affected, if not benefited from the several fiscal and monetary policies the government initiated on the command of His Majesty The King.
From the last lockdown, we have seen how Bhutanese have come forward to help fight the pandemic and its impact. From sacks of potatoes to cash contributions, Bhutanese from all walks of lives readily contributed. Some had, without advertising, paid the quarantine charges otherwise paid for by the government.
The cost of vaccines will leave a huge dent on the government’s coffer. The people could come forward to ease this burden. What if those who can afford to pay Nu 200 or 300 pay for their own vaccine? What if the salaried group, civil servants, corporate and private sector employees contribute Nu 1,000 to a vaccine fund? What if those benefited in the millions contribute 5-10 percent of the benefits they enjoyed from loan interest waivers, for instance?
The amounts suggested are not huge at an individual level, but it would ease the burden on the government when the country is going through a rough time. Many spend at least a thousand Ngultrum buying junk food, tobacco and alcohol even during the lockdown. The cost of a packet of cigarettes could cover vaccinating two fellow Bhutanese.
Although it has been suggested, more than once, that the people be made to pay for some health services in Bhutan, it was out of compassion for the large rural majority that our monarchs insisted on free health services for the Bhutanese people.
Times have changed and we are dealing with a pandemic. Experts say that there could be Covid-20 or Covid-21 given the nature of the coronavirus. Many countries are reeling under a new wave of infection from a new variant at the end of 2020. The danger is not over.
Fighting the pandemic has been costly at all fronts. The sustenance of the health system is the most crucial during a pandemic.
The generous contribution to the Covid-19 fund comes as a fresh food for thought. Perhaps it is time that we started helping ourselves by paying for basic services. We will start valuing the services and facilities while we will be in a better position to question the quality and efficiency of health delivery systems.