How Bhutan Remained Unscathed From COVID-19 Despite Being Surrounded By India & China?

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan has overcome all odds and kept the COVID-19 cases at bay. Bhutan has the lowest recorded cases of coronavirus in the Indian subcontinent and the efforts of the Bhutanese government and people have made it a real success story.

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COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every country in the world.  The virus does not respect borders and has even reached even far-flung nations and islands.

While most countries have been brought to its knees after the lockdown, economic losses and massive death rate, one country has escaped almost unscathed. Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom landlocked between Asian giants India and China, has championed in curbing the virus. While Germany, Taiwan and South Korea have received praise for their efforts, the success of Bhutan has largely been ignored.

At the time of writing, Bhutan recorded 21 cases and 0 fatalities according to the data collected from the John Hopkins University of Medicine. At the forefront of the battle against corona have been prominent figures of the Royal Bhutanese government – His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Khisar Namgyel Wangchuck, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji and Health Minister Dechen Wangmo. Interestingly, the latter 3 are all medical doctors and possess a background in public health.

The Kingdom of Bhutan lays special emphasis on health and healthcare services. All citizens receive free healthcare at the point of care. As enshrined in the Constitution of Bhutan, the National Health Policy states that the state shall “provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicines.”

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The government also guarantees to pursue the comprehensive approach of Primary Health Care, providing universal access with an emphasis on disease prevention, health promotion, community participation and intersectoral collaboration.

Bhutan and Coronavirus

A combination of factors put Bhutan at a natural risk of the deadly virus. Firstly, Bhutan is sandwiched between India and China, countries that have a combined total of 180,000+ cases and more 7500 deaths.

India shares an open border with Bhutan and is also home to a substantial Bhutanese population. Bhutan remains a popular tourist destination amongst tourists from China, the place of origin of the coronavirus, with thousands flocking to see the country every year.

Secondly, while Bhutan’s Health Policy mainly focuses on preventive measures to ensure that its healthcare system is not overwhelmed to deal with its 750,00 strong population, its infrastructure remains inadequate. Currently, Bhutan has a little over 300 doctors, 1 ICU Expert, a few lab experts and chest specialists and a dearth of ventilators and personal protective equipment.

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Lastly, as countries around the world started going into lockdown, Bhutanese citizens and students abroad wanted to return home. Most citizens were flying back from highly infected countries and hence could have contributed to the spread of the diseases.

Thankfully, the Bhutanese government was prepared to avert this disaster and took the threat of the virus seriously. The first-ever case was recorded on March 5 when a U.S. citizen tested positive for the virus.

The government quickly swung into action by isolating the patient and incurred the entire cost of treatment. The government then began tracing people who had come in contact with the person and placed them in isolation. From March 16, the government in Thimphu made it mandatory for people returning to quarantine for 14 days.

120 facilities were constructed for the same. An extra week of quarantine was added to reassure the general public. A large scale lockdown was also implemented at the same time as schools were forced to shut, foreigners were no longer allowed to enter the country and social distancing norms were encouraged.

Even though the cases in Bhutan did not rise, His Royal Majesty decided to shut the borders on March 22. This decision raised a few eyebrows considering Bhutan’s reliance on Indian imports for meeting consumption needs.

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However, the local Bhutanese community stepped up and eliminated any existing fears. Farmers started donating crops, people gave food and money in charity to help those in need, hotel owners voluntarily offered their properties to be used as quarantine facilities.

Restaurants and volunteers prepared and distributed food to the needy as well as those working on the frontline. His Royal Majesty even went to the border with India to assist volunteers building shelter for evacuees from the Indian state of West Bengal.

The government not only provided free testing and medical services, but also made sure that people living in isolation facilities did not have to pay for food and accommodation. Thimphu prepared for the worst-case scenario and shelved planned expenditure by reprioritizing its future activities and consolidated funds from different sectors and invested them in COVID-19 response.

On April 11, His Royal Majesty announced the creation of a National Resilience Fund to provide relief and economic stability. An important part of the NRF is Druk Gyalpo Relief Kidu.

The Kidu is aimed at supporting the citizens who have lost their livelihood owing to the adverse impact of the pandemic on businesses. The Kidu, usually a cash grant, will not only pay for the cost of treatment for its students abroad but also cover the travelling expenses of those wanting to return home but lack sufficient funds. Repatriation transport was also organized to bring back nationals via air or land routes.

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One aspect of Bhutan’s response that stands out is the lack of politicisation of the COVID-19 crisis by the opposition. While in countries such as India, the United States and the United Kingdom the global pandemic is being heavily politicised, in Bhutan, this is not the case.

The opposition party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) has regularly supported and backed the government response led by Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). Bhutan is one of the youngest democracies in the world and the maturity shown by the politicians sets an example to follow.

The country set up the National COVID-19 Response fund on 9 March and as a show of support, all members of the Bhutanese Parliament donated one month’s salary to the cause.

The government of Bhutan did get assistance from India and even the World Bank to deal with the crisis, however, it was the sheer determination of the Himalayan Kingdom and impressive implementation by the government that helped Bhutan avert a major catastrophe.

The country was not hesitant to take bold decisions and its government worked tirelessly according to WHO guidelines and protocols. This, coupled with the helping hand from the tightly knit Bhutanese community made Bhutan a success story during the coronavirus pandemic.

Penned By Armaan Srivastava