Bhutan’s king leads from the front nation's battle against Covid-19

Although Bhutan will succeed in its vaccination drive, the scramble in the South Asian region for doses underscores the highly iniquitous access to vaccines to fight Covid-19, writes N. Chandra Mohan for South Asia Monitor

N Chandra Mohan Jul 06, 2021
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Battle against Covid-19

The danger of a resurgence of Covid-19 infection due to the highly-contagious Delta variant has underscored the imperative of a faster roll-out of vaccines in South Asia. Ever since the pandemic engulfed the world more than a year ago, the region accounts for 18 percent of global cases and 11.5 percent of confirmed deaths as of July 1, according to Our World in Data.

With the major vaccine supplier, India, temporarily halting exports to the region to ambitiously inoculate its over 1.3 billion population by this yearend, neighbors like Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are scrambling to secure alternative sources of supply of the jabs.

These sources include COVAX - the vaccines pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, GAVI (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation)  and World Health Organisation (WHO), European Union, China, among others. Nepal has so far received 4.3 million shots from COVAX and China is supplying another 4 million.

Bhutan’s sense of urgency is greater as it administered the first shots to 63 percent of its approximately (according to Worldometer) 780.000 citizens in late March and April. The small Himalayan kingdom now has to ensure a similar amount of vaccines for the second shot by mid-July to meet the prescribed gap between the two doses. Much to Bhutan’s relief, the EU has generously stepped in to help with half a million vaccines, of which 250,000 will come from Denmark.

Bhutan’s efforts to vaccinate its population are a stellar example in South Asia’s fight against Covid-19.This was done in a record time of nine days through community participation.

Inspiring leadership

The Buddhist kingdom is also an exemplar for the inspiring role of its leadership in propagating Covid-19 appropriate behavior among the populace. During the past few months, the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk -- who is revered as god by his people – trekked through the mountainous terrain of the southern and eastern regions to alert people about the pandemic and exhort border personnel to be vigilant regarding infected visitors crossing the border.

Earlier in March, the king headed to the southern border from Trongsa to Phuentsholing, through which flows the bulk of Bhutan’s trade with India. Later in March, he visited the eastern front and encouraged people to get vaccinated.

The king returned to the south on 21 April after a few Covid cases were discovered. Phuentsholing was locked down and the king reviewed the security of quarantine centers and possible points where transmission occurs, according to The Print. After spending almost a month in the South, he returned home. In June, he again visited the east with the Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a medical doctor turned politician who still manages to see patients. The king returned to Thimphu on 18 June after five days on the road from Merak to Jomotshangka in the east.

Upon his return, the king, like any other common Bhutanese, went into a 14-day quarantine mandated by Covid health care protocols. The fact that he chose to visit the affected areas instead of staying in the cozy comfort of his palace amidst a challenging healthcare crisis, boosted the morale of the Bhutanese people and the government officials.

King Wangchuk's leading from the front has made a huge difference in Bhutan’s battle against Covid-19. Although he had visited remote parts of the country last year as well, it is only this time that the media picked it up in a big way. The enormous goodwill enjoyed by the king among his people is an X factor in the kingdom’s efforts to contain the pandemic which contrasts with the not-so-inspiring behavior of the political leadership in the neighborhood.

Low case count

For such reasons, Bhutan stands out in the region’s efforts to contain the pandemic. While a powerful neighbor India has registered an overwhelming proportion of confirmed cases (nearly 30.5 million) and deaths of over 400,000 people, Bhutan’s confirmed case count is only 2,122, with just one fatality to date! Even by global standards, this is an amazing factoid.

But the kingdom is not out of the woods yet as it is seriously concerned over the spurt in Delta variant cases in its southern border with India which can overwhelm its healthcare system if it spreads further. This also explains the kingdom’s sense of urgency to build herd immunity among the population through jabs.

Although Bhutan will succeed in its vaccination drive, the scramble in the South Asian region for doses underscores the highly iniquitous access to vaccines to fight Covid-19. At a time when 1.84 billion or 23.7 percent of the world population has received at least one dose, most of it is in advanced countries. Less than 1 percent of Africans have received a single dose. Only 22 million or 1.2 percent of the global total is from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

India must resume its vaccine supplies to its neighbors in the coming months to aid their efforts to fight against the infectious Delta variant.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based economics and business commentator. The views are personal. He can be contacted on nchandramohan@rediffmail.com)