UNICEF and WHO flag the risks of not following COVID-19 safety measures
From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to the successful double-dose vaccination of almost all its eligible population, Bhutan’s response to the pandemic remains exemplary. Despite being surrounded by countries that are seeing an increasing number of new cases, Bhutan’s high vaccination coverage and continued emphasis on public health safety measures makes the country one of the safest places to live in.
Yet, even as the country shifts gear to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and prepares to relax some of the restrictions, the surge in new cases and appearance of new variants spiraling around our borders is a chilling reminder that the threat of this capricious virus, which continues to upend lives in the region and across the world, is not yet over. Even after vaccination.
Being vaccinated protects one from falling seriously ill and being hospitalized for COVID-19 infection. It gives us the freedom and protection to go about our daily lives. However, there is still the risk of a vaccinated person getting infected with COVID-19 and transmitting it to another.
With the virus still evolving and with many countries struggling to vaccinate their population amid rising cases, the risks of importation and mass transmission still remain high. When complacency creeps in towards safety protocols such as wearing masks, handwashing with soap and avoiding crowds, Bhutan, despite vaccination, will remain susceptible to reinfection and worse, mass transmission. Such a situation would overwhelm our health system and our already overburdened health workers. The socio-economic impacts of mass transmission would be devastating.
Given the efforts that have gone into protecting the health of its people, the service of our front liners and health workers, the leadership of His Majesty The King and the Royal Government of Bhutan, the support of development partners and the solidarity of the people, the stakes are too high for Bhutan to let its guard down.
In the face of the current surge sweeping across the region and a third wave that is likely to hit the region, it has become more important than ever that we all continue to follow COVID-19 safety guidance and protocols. For besides the leadership of His Majesty and the efforts of the Government, it was the people’s adherence to safety protocols that contributed in keeping all of us safe.
South Asia is home to almost 2 billion people, and the continued and uncontrolled surge brings significant regional and global risks, with the potential to reverse hard-earned gains against the pandemic if the virus continues to spread and mutate unchecked. We are now in a situation where fragile health-systems, already pushed to breaking point by COVID-19, could topple across the region leading to more tragic loss of life.
As COVID-19 cases have increased, the direct impact on children in contracting the virus has also increased. More children are falling ill with COVID-19 than ever before. Fortunately, most cases in children are mild and very few serious cases required hospitalization. But with countries continuing to respond to the pandemic and as resources get diverted and services become saturated, the essential health services that children and mothers rely on, could become compromised, if not shuttered entirely. UNICEF estimates that in 2020, a quarter of a million children died due to disruptions to essential healthcare services in South Asia. We cannot let this happen again and certainly not in Bhutan.
While all countries in the region have ramped up vaccination rates over the last few weeks with increased supply of vaccines, vaccine coverage remains inadequate to halt the spread of transmission and potential virus mutations. Which is why, it has become more urgent than ever for Bhutan to ensure that its COVID-19 recovery efforts, which can be a slippery process, are as collective as its response efforts.
UNICEF, WHO and other UN agencies in Bhutan are humbled to have supported the Royal Government of Bhutan in its COVID-19 response efforts and congratulate Bhutan for achieving high vaccination coverage. We remain as committed to support the country’s recovery efforts and join the Royal Government of Bhutan’s call to the people to continue practicing the safety measures. Now more than ever, we must strive to preserve the success Bhutan has achieved against COVID-19.
We are vaccinated but we are still not safe.
Contributed by Dr Will Parks, Representative, UNICEF Bhutan &
Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, Representative, WHO Bhutan