Bhutan’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic

In a question and answer session with Business Bhutan’s senior reporter Chencho Dema, Prime Minister Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering shared about lessons learned during the pandemic, how Bhutan adapted to the crisis and His Majesty’s leadership and guidance throughout. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity)

  1. What is the lesson derived from this pandemic and what are the key factors that served to keep Bhutan safe from the pandemic?
  2. As we fight the pandemic, we tried to do what needs to be done immediately to save the lives and livelihood of the people. The changes we bring in and lessons we learn must benefit the people and the country in the long run. His Majesty has been reminding us of this all along. All the countries that have failed in the fight against the pandemic are the countries where the gap between the government and people is wide, where people did not obey the norms properly, and the government did not manage the proceedings transparently. But Bhutan’s case is different.

The biggest takeaway from this is pandemic is that we could feel His Majesty’s passion, care, concern, love, and affection for the Bhutanese. I said this many times before: even as a father I doubt if I could give the kind of attention to my own family. We knew it all along but this time we felt it practically. We have personally witnessed His Majesty’s leadership and people’s seriousness to abide by the norms.

When people followed the lockdown norms very dedicatedly, it gave us the confidence to fight the pandemic and made it easy for us. People agreed to a three weeks’ lockdown the second time and were it to be extended by10 more days, people were still willing to stay under lockdown. Bhutanese by and large were ready to take hardship when needed and really necessary. This pandemic also gave us, as a party in power, an opportunity to work very closely with Bhutanese leaders and experts. I am very impressed that we do have a lot of highly dedicated, skilled individuals in the country. We have capable individuals in the country who can do anything anytime; we just need to use them. These are the lessons.

I am not saying Bhutan always had a healthcare system of world-class standard but we have a robust, free healthcare system. With access right up to villages and everything catered free to the country by the government. So no one is left behind. Some take the free medi-care for granted but people must realize that our past monarchs have invested so much that it is making a difference today. While Bhutanese worry about being infected by COVID-19 and falling sick while also spreading the virus to their families, businesses worry about their business. Do you realize that if you are positive or if one is diagnosed positive, how much expenditure will be incurred? Will the family income and savings be enough for the treatment? This is what you don’t have to worry about in Bhutan, while in most other countries the pressing concern apart from keeping away the disease and death is treatment costs. In other countries, a day in ICU costs more than 10,000 while in Bhutan, you have to follow the COVID-19 norms, stay away from the disease, and in case you are infected then the only worry is about recovery. All the necessary medical treatment will be taken care of by the government. Isn’t this one of the biggest blessings that Bhutanese have? And on top of that, care, livelihood support (Kidu welfare), lockdown support, and if you are not able to buy your groceries, groceries being delivered at your doorstep, if you are not able to take care of your elderly or people with comorbidities in your family, you can just call a number and send that person to a hotel. Everything is taken care of by His Majesty’s welfare office. People getting the opportunity to understand this kind of situation should take it as a lesson learned. As I was saying free health care has always been taken very seriously by The King and it is serving the purpose during such times.

  1. You have a family back home and more than a month since you have been away from them, do you miss them? What are some things you would like to do with/for them once you reunite?
  2. There is no question of missing or not missing on a very frank note. You will miss but it all depends on prioritizing your work when needed. You should be able to prioritize. You should be able to control your personal needs and emotions. That has always been me as a person and prioritizing what is required at that particular time or hour or day. Of course, for the whole government, nothing else can be more important than serving the nation when it is required, both in personal as well as professional capacity.

I feel very honored to be getting this opportunity and cannot serve halfheartedly. This is a place or position where divided attention cannot be good. Anybody in a good sense will not say, I’m not missing my family. That is natural, that is biological and that is only expected. On a frank note, I could not think about my family. Of course, the other side is they are understanding and at times I take their support for granted. They are more worried about my health and my attention to governance right now. As long as I can function and I can govern, as long as the country is kept safe, livelihood and lives of the Bhutanese are safeguarded and protected, nothing else will matter from both my in-laws’ and parents’ side.

It is not like the old age era. We have social media, WhatsApp, WeChat and FaceBook to keep you updated. I get to see more updates about my family through social media. I think after the lockdown, I have talked with my wife more than pre-lockdown and I have shared more pictures than pre-lockdown. I don’t have any immediate plans with family because of the task at hand.

  1. People are skeptical about the vaccine. What is your message on this to the public?
  2. People who have doubts about the COVID-19 vaccination and its safety are the people who do not know about vaccination. There is no doubt in it. The vaccine is for you to protect yourself from the disease. The choice that you have is whether you want to have the disease. Or you want to take risks and take the side effects of the vaccine. The side effects of the disease are far greater than the side effects of the vaccine. There is no medicine, including vaccination, that has come out in clinical use without side effects. But you have to weigh the risks of taking it but not by not taking it. If you do not take the vaccine, you are vulnerable to COVID-19. How many millions have lost their lives to this disease? Whereas if you take the vaccine, side-effects are very local, and transient and there is a very good chance to see 70% protected from the disease. When you say 60-70%, people are expecting a 100%. So if you read about the side-effects of other vaccinations, then this vaccination is just like any other vaccination. There is no problem.
  3. Is there anything that you want to add?
  4. What if a scenario occurs whereby lives are lost, hospitals are unable to accommodate patients, crematoriums are not able to accommodate dead bodies, wave after wave, until the situation becomes uncontrollable? Then the livelihood and economy are automatically disrupted. And then we also lose the battle against the disease-this is the biggest concern of His Majesty who is always worried about the situation. COVID-19 causes societal disruption. His Majesty is also worried and concerned about people unable to get jobs and people losing their jobs during the lockdown, stranded people unable to go back to their respective destinations and the emergence of domestic violence. We have to live up to the expectation of the public. We pledged to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum and we are like no other civil servants or experts; we volunteered to serve the nation and during the campaign time we asked for an opportunity to serve them selflessly and like a servant; now we have come forward. We must be able to live up to their expectations. If the government can’t perform well then it will disappoint His Majesty and the public will have lifelong regret for electing me. If we could control the pandemic and revive the economy then, I will have something exciting to look back to. I will have a story to tell our younger generation and my children.

When you talk about COVID-19, from a disease point of view, it is coming down for sure, but the government’s responsibility will only increase as we feel the economic impact of the pandemic. As the disease clears off, the remnants are going to raze us.