… Bhutan becomes increasingly popular for the leadership in combating Covid-19

Tshering Palden

“The health and safety of the people of Bhutan is of the greatest priority, and as such, we are putting in place every measure necessary to safeguard the people of Bhutan,” His Majesty The King said in the first address to the nation in March last year.

A day after this address, His Majesty left behind His four-day-old prince and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen at the palace and embarked on a nationwide tour to meet local authorities, frontline workers, and to see first-hand the mitigation measures against the pandemic.

The entire nation was shaken when Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering announced on March 6 that the first Covid-19 case was detected in the country.

His Majesty had spent the whole night with health officials personally overseeing the response and monitoring the patient’s condition. That night the officials successfully contact-traced 300 people in just six hours and 18 minutes.

Despite suffering from other serious medical conditions, the 76-year-old American survived and eventually recovered.

He told Kuensel that it was a rare experience to witness a King getting personally involved in looking after a patient who was a complete stranger. “I just couldn’t believe it. I feel that it was His involvement that saved my life.”

On His Majesty’s command, the Royal guest house in Mongar was converted into a Covid-19 hospital, thousands of stray dogs that went hungry as residents remained locked in were fed during the lockdowns, and the elderly were provided with vitamin supplements, and ration delivered for the needy.

All entry points to the country were shut on March 23, as cases across the border rose exponentially despite the best efforts. The country saw two nationwide lockdowns and numerous restrictions in response to the pandemic that severely hampered businesses and devastated livelihoods.

To protect the well-being and welfare of the people and country, on Royal command a Nu 30 billion (USD 400 million) National Resilience Fund was  established providing relief to those who lost their source of income (around 50,000 lost their jobs in the tourism sector alone) and to help sustain businesses affected by the pandemic. Needy families received monthly subsistence allowance for each child.

One of the kidu recipients Sangay Tshultim from Gelephu was jobless, broke and distressed. His wife was due to deliver their second child in two weeks and he had many dues to pay. In a desperate attempt, he applied for Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu.

“I can’t imagine how we would have survived if not for the kidu from His Majesty The King,” Sangay said.

The deferment of loan and waiver of interest following the Royal command came as a huge relief for the people.  Interests on loans were initially waived for three months between April and June last year. Additionally, the waiver of interest was extended for another three months till September. It was followed by a partial interest waiver (50 percent) for six more months until March 2021. The cost of the interest paid on loans for the period of nine months is estimated at Nu 7.5 billion (B).

More than 19,126 accounts that had non-performing loan (NPL) benefited from the interest waiver. Of that, hotel and construction sectors together accounted for 30 percent. The interest waiver benefited about 112,024 individuals across the country.

“The pandemic would have crushed the private sector if not for the magnanimity and benevolence of His Majesty,” a contractor said. “We’re inspired to work harder.”

Inspired by their King, Bhutanese both within and abroad united in the spirit of solidarity. Thousands of farmers contributed free vegetables and food items to frontline workers, businesses and individuals donated to the Covid-19 funds, and many more, especially the young, joined the Desuung programme to volunteer at the frontlines.

More than 130 women stuck in Iraq, and many others were brought home from abroad via repatriation flights arranged on Royal command as the pandemic situation worsened the world over. More than 5,000 families were shifted to safety  into homes built for them in Phuentsholing.  

The Prime Minister repeatedly mentioned that His Majesty had instructed the government not to worry about funds and that everything possible has to be done to ensure the safety of Bhutanese both within and abroad. 

Those who suffered from Covid-19 abroad were looked after. The state pays the vaccination expenses for every Bhutanese living abroad. 

With His Majesty The King personally overseeing the entire response and containment efforts, Bhutan today has only eight active Covid-19 cases all within the safe boundaries of the quarantine centres. Of 866 cases, 857 recovered and only a chronically ill patient died from complications after being detected Covid-19 positive.

The health ministry so far tested 512,458 people and provided free quarantine facilities for thousands.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo’s words best summed up the country secret behind the country’s success in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Every individual wants to contribute to our country and the King. This is the biggest unifying factor and strength for Bhutan, and this is the factor that would drive us through beating Covid-19.”

“As envisioned by His Majesty, I think we are going to come out of this as a more united and resilient nation.”

From the International Communities

As countries across the world battle the pandemic, many critics are pointing to Bhutan for a successful strategy.

Bangladesh Ambassador to Bhutan, AKM Shahidul Karim, said that Bhutan continues to sail through challenges related to employment, livelihood, food, health – both physical and mental, and many other critical aspects with enviable success.

“And it all has been possible because Bhutanese are fortunate to have a true guardian – His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo, not only to watch over them but also to lead by example.”

Indian Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj said that within this past year, an entire nation has been witness to His Majesty epitomising the strength of a true leader. Strength stemming from the depths of compassion and wisdom.

“When the world battled a pandemic, Bhutan managed to turn itself into an oasis – a land of hope. But more so, it enforced its place as an example of what it meant to have powerful leadership. Powerful leadership, which rose from unwavering love and strong judgement,” the ambassador said.

His Majesty has continued to inspire through this exceptional melange, with nothing but the love for his country and people in mind, she said. “With meticulous pre-emptive planning and organisation, in-person involvement, discipline, strength and kindness, Bhutan has remained blessed through this time. His Majesty has not only prevented the depths of the pandemic from entering Bhutan but has also stood as an emblem of hope within the world. An example of courage and compassion,” Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj said.

British Honorary Consul to Bhutan, Michael Rutland OBE, said that it has been a great honour and privilege to have known His Majesty for several decades and to see how His Majesty has not only been born into the role of King but has grown into it so strongly and assuredly.

“We are indeed fortunate to have a Monarch who so clearly demonstrates the reality of his words in his Coronation Address to the Nation when he affirmed that he would look after us like a parent, serve us like a son and protect us like a brother.”

Resident Coordinator United Nations in Bhutan, Gerald Daly said His Majesty embodies what Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel said 400 years ago: “My resolve is such that until the task is accomplished, I will persevere even if lightning should strike from above, the space in-between collapse, or the earth below move.”

“His Majesty’s leadership exemplifies this important quote.  As the world struggles through this Covid-19 challenge, I’m moved by how Bhutan has come together in solidarity. His Majesty The King’s leadership inspires and encourages all Bhutanese to come together as one nation to combat Covid-19.”