Countries like New Zealand and Vietnam have been praised for their rapid and comprehensive covid-19 response, but one of the most impressive pandemic successes comes from a small and often under-publicized country: Bhutan.
On January 7, 2021, Bhutan reported its first covid-19 death. Not of the week or even of the year. This was the country’s first death of the pandemic and it’s no accident it has largely mitigated the tragedies of the pandemic experienced by other countries.
Just 11 days after China first reported a mysterious respiratory illness to the WHO, Bhutan drafted its National Preparedness and Response Plan and began screening travelers for respiratory distress and fever. When the country detected its first case of covid-19 in early March, they conducted an impressive 300-person contact tracing procedure and quarantined every potential contact to stop the outbreak in its tracks.
Bhutan was also one of the first countries to shut down public venues like schools, restaurants, and movie theaters. It instituted a mandatory quarantine for anyone potentially exposed to the virus and encouraged flexible working hours with compensation for those who had to miss work due to illness or potential exposure. When they realized that the 14-day quarantine recommended by the CDC for travelers and those exposed left an 11 percent chance that someone was still in the incubation period of the virus, they extended their quarantine length to 21 days. They provided free hotel accommodations for people quarantining and even provided psychological counseling for those in isolation.
When it became clear the pandemic would not end in a few short months, the country initiated their “Our Gyenkhu, or “Our Responsibility” program, which recruited public figures to advocate for public health measures and raise citizens’ spirits. Although the country implemented strict nationwide lockdowns when cases arose, they also accommodated for the inconvenience by delivering food, medicine, and other essentials to vulnerable families and those over age 60. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck also launched a $19 million relief fund to support the 34,000 Bhutanese whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
It’s easy to argue that Bhutan’s size (it has a population of 763,000 people) made it easier to institute national safety measures, but the country’s prioritization of health, safety, and happiness are far more influential in its success than its size. Bhutan bases much of its policy-making not on GDP, but on the Gross National Happiness Index, and its leaders reflect these values of human wellness. Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a highly respected physician, spent most of the pandemic continuing to perform critical surgeries and sleeping in his office to avoid potentially exposing his family to the virus.
Statistically, Bhutan was particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. The country has only 337 physicians and only one PCR machine to test viral samples. Nonetheless, it demonstrated and continues to demonstrate, how rapid, effective, and wellness-focused public health measures can be immensely effective. As we continue to fight to contain the pandemic, other countries can take a page out of Bhutan’s book.