TACOMA, Washington — Bhutan is a country in Southeast Asia between China and India. It has managed to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with just 891 total cases and only 1 death as of April 4, 2021. Despite these major successes, COVID-19 has still had a major impact on Bhutan, particularly for those in poverty. Throughout the pandemic, Bhutan and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) have implemented multiple programs and a variety of measures to contain COVID-19 while protecting those in poverty. Bhutan’s COVID-19 response aims to reduce the overall impacts of COVID-19.
COVID-19 in Bhutan
Although Bhutan shares a border with China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began, Bhutan’s strict policies on tourism kept many people from traveling into Bhutan before the virus was identified. When COVID-19 was discovered, Bhutan quickly closed its borders and strictly enforced a 21-day quarantine for any returning citizens. Bhutan’s health system lacks medical equipment and medical professionals. Luckily, however, the health system was not overburdened because of the low COVID-19 case numbers. COVID-19 patients thus received adequate medical care. Additionally, potentially exposed individuals could sufficiently access testing facilities.
Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and Health Minister Dechen Wangmo spearheaded Bhutan’s COVID-19 response. They are both experts in public health. The government offered updates, frequent bulletins and press releases to keep citizens informed about the state of COVID-19 in Bhutan. A foundation of traditional communal values strengthened Bhutan’s response, which resulted in the entire country coming together to combat COVID-19. Businesses looked to help individuals as well as organize larger-scale changes such as quarantine zones. Farmers and restaurants offered free food and produce to those struggling and hotel owners offered rooms for quarantine purposes.
The Downside of Closed Borders
Bhutan has succeeded thus far in controlling the virus, but the closed borders hurt a variety of economically vulnerable groups. Tourism is a large industry in Bhutan and many people rely on tourism for employment. These circumstances mean many people are at risk of poverty.
On May 19, 2020, the UNDP Bhutan published an assessment of the vulnerability of individuals and businesses in the tourism industry of Bhutan. The report found that the effects of the pandemic were already severe and widespread. The report also found that many people who mainly rely on tourism as a livelihood were willing to change occupations if the opportunity presented itself.
To address these issues, the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) of Bhutan worked alongside the UNDP Bhutan to start a variety of programs to help. On June 24, 2020, they launched a program to help those in the tourism industry by converting nearly 3,500 acres of land into a vegetable farm. The program expects to help 18 groups of people in the tourism sector, 17 groups of farmers and an additional 445 individual farmers. This initiative will ensure food security and an income for those whose livelihoods have been hard hit.
Just over a week later, on July 2, the UNDP Bhutan announced a COVID-19 recovery project designed to improve the healthcare system and help those most affected by the pandemic transition into different occupations in the future. A major focus of the project is to increase access to healthcare through digital solutions.
These projects work to address short-term goals of helping people cope with the pandemic but also present ideas that support Bhutan’s long-term goals. The vegetable farm program is making Bhutan more self-sufficient. Bhutan is also taking this opportunity to invest in new forms of renewable energy that will make Bhutan more energy independent and create many high-paying jobs.
A Model Example
In many ways, Bhutan’s COVID-19 response has been successful so far as it took aggressive preventative actions that allowed its limited healthcare system to cope with few cases. Many economic challenges remain, but with strong government leadership and a sense of community, Bhutan can conquer these challenges. Bhutan’s COVID-19 response is a model example of how to manage a pandemic and all its consequences.
– Will Dormer