12 ways Bhutanese have come together to effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic
To date, only one person in Bhutan has died of Covid-19. Despite all the lockdowns the country has endured, the welfare of the people has been properly looked after. Below are some of the ways that Bhutanese have come together to combat the pandemic.
1. Early actions
At the time of writing, Bhutan has had only 1 Covid-19 death, a 34-year-old man with preexisting liver and kidney conditions. This extremely low number of Covid-19 casualties is owed to their early precautions.
China first reported the outbreak to WHO on December 31, 2019, and by January 11, 2020, Bhutan had drafted its National Preparedness and Response Plan. On January 15, they started screening arrival passengers for symptoms. They introduced infrared fever scanning at every point of entry into the country.
On March 6, Bhutan detected their first Covid-19 case, a 76-year-old American tourist. 6 hours 18 minutes later, 300 contacts and secondary contacts had been traced and quarantined.
2. Introduction of standard operating procedures
Following that, the government barred tourists, shut down schools, public institutions, and other public spaces. They introduced flexible working hours, face masks, sanitiser, and social distancing.
All positive cases were isolated, including the asymptomatic ones. Those in quarantine were provided psychological counselling too.
Furthermore, Bhutan implements a 21-day quarantine period, 7 days more than WHO’s recommended 14 days. This is because, following a 14-day quarantine, a person still has an 11% chance of spreading the virus.
3. The “Our Gyenkhu” (“Our Responsibility”) campaign
The health ministry launched the “Our Gyenkhu” campaign to instil a sense of collective responsibility in fighting Covid-19. They engaged influencers like actors, visual artists, bloggers, and sports personnel to inspire the public to do their part in fighting the pandemic.
4. Testing and Contact Tracing
Bhutan introduced wide-scale testing and tracing. The government created a tracing app, Druk Trace for community tracing in case of local transmission of Covid-19.
The app helps to identify people who may have come in direct contact with a Covid-19 infected person while visiting public places or while using public transportation.
5. Lockdown of the country
In August, when a 27-year-old woman became the first person to test positive for Covid-19 outside the quarantine centre, the country implemented a 3-week national lockdown.
In December 2019, when another person tested positive at a flu clinic in Thimphu, the country went into lockdown again. Aside from the two nationwide lockdowns, multiple lockdowns have been implemented for the red zones. The lockdowns were implemented to disrupt the chain of transmission within the communities, especially the more vulnerable places like the border areas.
6. Kidu relief
The lockdown affected the economic welfare of the country. Recognising the hardships the people were facing, the King first established the Druk Gyalpo Relief Kidu (DGRK) in April 2020 to provide monthly income to those in need. The kidu also includes a loan interest payment to support borrowers. From April 2020 to March 2021, more than 37,000 people benefited from monthly income and 14,000 loan accounts benefited from the loan interest aid.
On April 22, 2021, the King extended the kidu for another 15 months.
To ease the financial burdens of the people, some landlords have also waived the tenant's rent while banks offered loan deferments.
7. The politicians spearheaded the efforts against the pandemic
Partly due to the SOP to avoid bringing the virus home, several senior officials across the 10 ministries spent nights in their offices or guesthouses. The country’s health minister, Wangmo, slept in ministry facilities for weeks, away from her young son. The Prime Minister, a surgeon who continued to perform surgeries on Saturdays during the crisis period, slept on a windowsill in his office.
During the onset of the pandemic in the country in March 2020, members of parliament gave up a month’s salary to be channelled towards the Covid-19 efforts.
8. Hoteliers offered their property as quarantine centres
According to the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB) in March 2020, several hotels had offered their facilities as quarantine centres for free or at a minimal charge. Officials from response teams were also offered rooms. Currently, all the Bhutanese returning to Bhutan will have to go through a 21-day mandatory quarantine. All the costs are borne by the government.
9. The King presented exemplary leadership
The King told the government that even one death from Covid-19 would be one too many deaths. He pressed officials for details on managing the pandemic. He’s also made multiple trips to the frontlines, where he encouraged health workers and volunteers.
To oversee the fight against communities Covid-19, His Majesty has embarked on a Royal Tour to visit his people. Concerned about the high numbers in the eastern communities, the King recently braved muddy trails and trekked for 5 days through some of the highest altitudes in the east. He arrived at Jomotshankha on June 13, 2021.
10. Telcos offered free data to help people connect
In August 2020, two telcos announced that they would offer free data to their subscribers. Bhutan Telecom (BT) declared that they were awarding their customers with 1,110MB of free data. Meanwhile, those that use TashiCell services enjoyed Nu 50 talk time and 1,024MB data for free.
11. Introduction of the National Vaccination Programme
With just 37 doctors, 1200 vaccination centres, and less than 3000 health care workers, Bhutan vaccinated 93% of their adult population within 9 days. Doctors and volunteers travel on foot to innoculate those living in rural areas.
12. De-suups deployed to serve the people
With the pandemic came the demand for manpower. Determined to serve their country, many Bhutanese registered as De-suups, the “Guardians of Peace”. De-suups are volunteers that serve the people whenever a need arises.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, thousands of Bhutanese have signed up as De-suups to serve the country. They have been mobilised all over the country, including to man 24-hour flu clinics.
They were also tasked with distributing hand sanitisers and goods to communities under lockdown. On top of that, they patrolled at the border to keep the country safe.
30 De-suups were also trained as basic frontline responders to aid the nurses in case Bhutan reaches a critical point of the pandemic. They are known as De-suup plus.
In March 2021, the De-suups assisted in the nationwide vaccination programme. Right now, 95% of the country’s total citizens have been vaccinated, making them one of the leaders in vaccine rollout.
There is much the rest of the world can learn from the way Bhutan has handled the Covid-19 pandemic.