Bhutan has been recognized and received much international acclaim as acting swiftly and decisively in executing long term response measures to the threat of Covid 19. By working together, under the guidance, compassion and wisdom of His Majesty the King, the virus is still at zero deaths, controlled and at much lower levels than any other country in the world.
On January 15, 2020 WHO announced the first confirmed case of Covid 19 in Thailand. Almost immediately, thermal scanners were installed and surveillance began at Paro International Airport. All passengers were required to submit additional contact information and travel history.
The Royal Government of Bhutan, on January 21, sat down to formulate a preparedness plan for all avenues of the country and its citizens. Health centers and Hospitals around the country were alerted to step up and work closely on the guidelines set forth by the Royal Centre for Disease Control.
As a precautionary measure international and regional meetings to be hosted by Bhutan were cancelled. Entry points in and out of the country were identified and surveillance and response teams were mobilized to the vulnerable areas, mainly the southern borders. Public Service announcements, cautionary notices and travel advisories were published and distributed by all means of communication.
Tourism is one of Bhutan’s highest income generating sectors, second only to hydro power.
By the first week of February 2020, the rapid Socio- Economic impact of Covid -19 hit Bhutan’s Tourism and its related service industry. Cancellations citing Covid 19 started to pour in. Tour Payments, Airline Tickets and Royalty refunds were being made. In a population of 700,000 people, 50,000 jobs were immediately impacted.
On March 6, 2020 the first active case of the novel corona virus was reported.
WHO had already placed Bhutan, located between the two giants of China and India, at a high risk of getting infected. This put Bhutan into the orange zone.
A 76 year old American tourist who had been travelling in South Asia was identified. There were 34 health personnel, two specialists and 16 nurses to care for him while contact tracing had begun.
Immediately all international borders were closed. Schools and institutes shut down. 56 Additional Flu Clinics were set up and free sanitizer distributed around the country. Classes were now online and education packages circulated to those without connectivity. A mandatory 14 day quarantine (Later extended to 21 days) went into immediate effect and was followed strictly especially by those returning home.
The Monastic Community led by the Head Abbot conducted prayers and ceremonies to abate the risk of the disease.
His Majesty’s Relief Fund provided welfare to those whose jobs were directly affected by way of a monthly allowance to cater to their needs.
An economic stimulus package was announced. All Loan installments were deferred and all interest on loans were waived.
The Private Sector in solidarity stepped up. Hotel owners offered their properties to be used as quarantine centers, the farmers provided groceries to these centers, home owners waived rent, private citizens, businesses and companies donated to His Majesty’s Relief Fund and the Ministry of Finance.
Volunteers from all ages and walks of life signed up to join the Guardians of Peace, “De-suung”
“The De-suung Integrated Training Programme is instituted to be a value-based personal development program with the main objective to encourage all citizens to be active in the greater role of nation building. The underlying premise of the training programme is built upon the spirit of volunteerism and the positive influence of ethics and values of community service, integrity and civic responsibility.”
From a single digit number of affected, a large number of returning citizens were put into quarantine centers . This brought about an accelerating number of cases and Bhutan had 110 people from the quarantine centers testing positive in the first week of August.
On August 11 2020 Bhutan went into its first and 21 day lock down. All businesses were shut down and all movement was restricted to the confines of ones home perimeter. 13,000 De-suung were deployed on 15 day schedules to assist the authorities and armed forces all over the country. This enabled actual door to door delivery of essential items to the different communities and allowed the grievances of these areas to be relayed to the authorities. The fact that His Majesty’s wish that all stray dogs would have food and shelter at this difficult time was possible, says everything about Covid -19 in the Land of Happiness.
Bhutan is now at a place where it has learned many critical lessons in a short span of time. All platforms are now working on ways to connect social, economic and environmental wellbeing and enable all Bhutanese to move forward in the new normal.