Bhutan's COVID-19 Response: A Shining Example of Unity, Healthcare, and Happiness

Learn how Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom, combated the pandemic with its unique Gross National Happiness philosophy, a strong healthcare system, and swift government action.

MyBhutan Staff
Visit Bhutan
Mar 8, 2023
7 min read
In some countries in Asia, a mark on the finger is used to indicate that a person received a vaccine

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the world in unimaginable ways, and governments across the globe implemented various measures to curb its spread. While many countries struggled to contain the virus, one nation that stood out was Bhutan. This small Himalayan kingdom, nestled between China and India, successfully combated the pandemic and emerged as a shining example for the world.

Bhutan, with a population of around 750,000, confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020. In response, the government implemented a multi-pronged strategy to contain the virus. The country's success in dealing with the pandemic can be attributed to various factors, including its strong healthcare system, swift action by the government, its unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy, and its benevolent leader.

One of the first steps taken by the Bhutanese government was to restrict incoming arrivals, only allowing locals and a small number of foreigners to enter who were all required to undergo mandatory quarantine. The government also implemented a nationwide lockdown for three weeks, during which only essential services were operational. It was made mandatory for everyone to wear masks in public places, even before it became a global norm.

The government conducted mass testing and contact tracing to identify and isolate infected individuals. A mobile application was launched that helped in tracking potential cases and monitoring individuals' quarantine status. The country had one of the highest testing rates in the world, with over 6,500 tests conducted per 100,000 people.

In January 2021, Bhutan received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines consisting of 150,000 doses of the CoviShield vaccine (a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine) donated by India. The arrival of the vaccines was met with great excitement and relief across the country. In a video posted on social media, Bhutan's Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, expressed his gratitude towards the Indian government, saying, "The entire Bhutanese population would like to thank the government of India for their generosity and support at this time of need." The government immediately launched its vaccination program, targeting frontline workers, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions.

Later, in July 2021, Bhutan received an additional 500,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine in a special chartered flight organized by UNICEF. The vaccines were sent by Denmark and organized in collaboration with India and the United States. This shipment of Moderna vaccines was enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Bhutan. At one point, Bhutan had the highest percentage of the total adult population vaccinated in the world, a testament to the government's effective response to the pandemic. The first recipients of the Moderna vaccine expressed their gratitude towards the government and the international community for their support in providing the much-needed vaccines.

As the first vaccine is administered, the Health Minister (background) claps in approval.

One of the most unique aspects of Bhutan's response to the pandemic was its GNH philosophy. The GNH philosophy emphasizes the holistic well-being of individuals and communities, and the Bhutanese government integrated this philosophy into its pandemic response. The government focused on providing mental health support to individuals and communities affected by the pandemic. It also ensured that vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, received necessary medical attention.

Another key factor in Bhutan's success was its strong healthcare system. The country has a ratio of one doctor for every 180 citizens, and the government invested heavily in building infrastructure and training healthcare professionals. This investment paid off during the pandemic, as the country had a sufficient number of medical professionals to deal with the crisis. Between March 2020 to September 2022, Bhutan reported only 21 COVID-19-related deaths and fewer than 62,000 cases.

Bhutan's success in combatting the pandemic was also due to its citizens' deep sense of community and social responsibility. In particular, the country's volunteer army, known as the Desuups, played a crucial role in the fight against the virus. The Desuups were formed in 2011 as a volunteer organization to serve the community during times of need. During the pandemic, they worked alongside the government and healthcare professionals to provide essential services to the people. They helped in contact tracing, distributing free essential supplies, and enforcing COVID-19 protocols. The Desuups were also involved in managing quarantine centers and ensuring that people complied with the quarantine rules. Their tireless efforts and selfless service were crucial in ensuring that Bhutan was able to contain the virus and prevent its spread. The Desuups were praised by the government and the people for their invaluable contribution to the country's pandemic response. Their service exemplifies the Bhutanese spirit of community and solidarity.

A Dessup offers assistance to an elder

Dessups were recipients of the "Druk Gyalpo's Relief Kidu", launched by His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to provide financial support to Bhutanese citizens affected by the pandemic. The Relief Kidu provided a monthly stipend to those who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, as well as support for medical expenses and other essential needs, from April 2020 to September 2022. After being established with an initial contribution of Nu 100 million from His Majesty's Kidu Foundation, the fund received generous donations from individuals, organizations, and businesses, both in Bhutan and abroad, to support those in need during the challenging time. The Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) donated $3.4 million USD, comprised of donations from multiple local tour operators, even with their industry being one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

In addition to the Dessups, airlines flew to ports they don't typically fly to in order to pick up Bhutanese citizens who were stranded in various countries. The Ministry of Health provided daily reports and updates. The Prime Minister, a doctor by trade, worked in the main hospital's COVID unit. Hotels offered their properties as quarantine facilities, and guides and tour operators cleaned trails to share an even greener Bhutan once the country eventually reopened to tourism.

Effective leadership is essential in times of crisis, and His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck's leadership and involvement were critical to Bhutan's successful COVID-19 response. As a hands-on leader, His Majesty oversaw the implementation of the country's pandemic response strategy, making regular visits to the frontline to provide guidance to healthcare workers. He even traveled to the southern border areas to personally monitor the testing and quarantine measures in place. His Majesty's active involvement inspired the Bhutanese people and demonstrated his unwavering commitment to protecting their health and well-being. Thanks to His Majesty's leadership and dedication to serving his people, Bhutan was able to contain the virus and emerge as a shining example for the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is the current situation of COVID-19 cases in Bhutan?

Answer: Between March 2020 and September 2022, Bhutan reported 21 COVID-related deaths and less than 62,000 COVID-19 cases. The country has been successful in controlling the spread of the virus through its effective pandemic response strategy, including measures such as border closure, mass testing, contact tracing, nationwide lockdown, and vaccination drive.

Question: What was the role of the Ministry of Health in Bhutan during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answer: The Ministry of Health in Bhutan played a crucial role in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. They implemented various measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including strict border controls, quarantine protocols, and mass testing. The Ministry also provided regular updates and guidelines to the public and worked closely with other government agencies and international organizations to ensure a coordinated response. Thanks to their efforts, Bhutan was able to successfully contain the spread of the virus and keep the number of COVID-19 cases low.

Question: What is the vaccine system in Bhutan?

Answer: Bhutan has a well-organized vaccine system that has been crucial in its successful vaccination campaign against COVID-19. The country has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was donated by India, as well as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was received through the COVAX facility. The vaccine distribution and administration in Bhutan are overseen by the Ministry of Health, and the vaccination drive has been carried out in phases, prioritizing vulnerable groups such as the elderly, healthcare workers, and people with comorbidities. The government has also set up a vaccine hotline and online registration system to ensure that the vaccination process is smooth and efficient.

Question: What are the current travel guidelines for COVID-19 in Bhutan?

Answer: Currently, there is no quarantine requirement or COVID-19 test required for travelers entering Bhutan. However, it is required that visitors have travel insurance that includes coverage for COVID-19.

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