The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has scripted a rare success story in the South Asian region devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting just two deaths, about 2,500 cases and inoculating 90% of its adult population in one of the world’s fastest inoculation campaigns.
Experts say mobilizing the community, meticulous planning by authorities and international donations of vaccines paved the way for the tiny country with limited resources to get a grip on the pandemic and emerge ahead of most nations.
When the coronavirus began ravaging countries last year, Bhutan offered financial incentives to people to augment its small pool of health workers and simultaneously called for volunteers.
Thousands stepped forward.
“Within a very short period of time the volunteer system crashed because there were so many people wanting to volunteer. And it was an amazing experience to see that instead of the incentives people were registering to volunteer, wanting to give something back to the community,” Dechen Wangmo, the country’s health minister, told VOA.
The country now has a roughly 30,000-strong force of citizens volunteers. Dressed in bright orange and known as “desuups,” they have boosted the efforts of some 350 doctors and 3,000 health workers. They have helped reinforce public health messages such as encouragement of wearing masks, and assisted in testing, surveillance and contact tracing among Bhutan’s approximately 750,000 people.
The first half a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, donated by India, were administered in March during a 16-day campaign that was timed to coincide with auspicious dates suggested by Buddhist monks. Choosing the right time to roll out the vaccines helped build faith in the shot -- Bhutan is a Buddhist country and is sometimes called the world’s last Shangri-la.
When New Delhi halted exports due to domestic shortages, Bhutan turned elsewhere. A batch of Moderna vaccines arrived in July from the COVAX program, an initiative to give vaccines to underdeveloped countries. Several other countries have also donated vaccines.
While some questions were raised on social media about inoculating people with two different vaccines, those issues were quickly laid to rest in a country known for its implicit faith in its Oxford-educated, 41-year-old constitutional monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. Although he has turned the country from an absolute monarchy into a democratic, constitutional monarchy, he is still hugely popular.
The medical background of its leadership helped -- Bhutan’s prime minister and foreign minister are doctors and health minister Wangmo is a Yale-educated epidemiologist.
Unlike many countries, vaccine hesitancy did not pose a problem -- although Bhutan has few doctors, it has a strong primary health care system.
“There is a lot of trust and confidence in the health system and people do understand the benefits of vaccine, that vaccines prevent diseases and they have seen it for generations,” Wangmo said.
The second doses were administered to 90% of the adult population in a weeklong campaign that began July 20, the health ministry said. UNICEF officials called it the fastest vaccination campaign during the pandemic. While Bhutan’s small population made the task easier, it faced the challenge of reaching far-flung mountain areas, often across difficult terrain.
“If Bhutan can succeed in a monsoon with so few health workers to get almost the entire population vaccinated and then move to the children, maybe Bhutan can be a beacon of hope in a region that is on fire,” said Will Parks, UNICEF Representative in Bhutan.
Even as many countries scramble for vaccines for adults, Bhutan now plans to inoculate 12- to 17-year-olds. The goal, officials said, is to reach herd immunity or at least avert serious infections in a country with only one doctor trained in critical care.
Inoculations are not the only achievement. Unlike many countries, Bhutan opened schools earlier this year.
UNICEF’s Park and domestic media credit the leadership with astutely navigating the pandemic.
King Wangchuck has traveled to remote hamlets to alert people about the pandemic – by car, foot or horseback. When the transmissible delta variant tore through India earlier this year, he visited areas in the east and south that adjoin India, with which the country has a porous border.
Bhutanese officials say those visits reinforced the message of solidarity and were more effective than public health guidelines.
“The visits conveyed that it is time for everyone to fight the common enemy. He would give that moral confidence to people and assurance that we are in it together and we are all going to follow the same rules,” Wangmo said.
The king would follow the country’s strict quarantine rules after each trip.
Bhutan has shown that the COVID pandemic is not just about the virus, but also about leadership, according to Parks.
“If there are lessons to be learnt from Bhutan, it is about compassionate leadership that has to come from the top,” Parks said. “By compassionate leadership I mean having deep empathy, really walking in the shoes of others, and then actively making efforts to support people throughout this terrible, terrible pandemic.”