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Buddhistdoor View: COVID-19 Knows No National Boundaries, Neither Should We


The recent news about the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan’s rousing success in vaccinating 93 per cent of its population in less than 10 days will come as a surprise to many. The country has little developed healthcare infrastructure and many remote villages and valleys where vaccines had to be flown in by helicopter. Television was only allowed in the country in 1999 after the lifting of a royal ban, and the capital, Thimphu, is the only capital city in the world without a single traffic light. Higher education is new, with the Royal University of Bhutan only established in 2003 to help coordinate and oversee a handful of educational institutions already functioning in the country. Bhutan is also still steeped in longstanding religious traditions—so much so that when the vaccines arrived, it was religious leaders who helped set the date for the first vaccinations.

In so many ways, this is an unlikely setting for the world’s fastest and most successful vaccine rollout. But those who know the society, built on centuries of Buddhist values, knew it could be done. To begin, the Buddhist authorities of Bhutan—hailing from the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism—are not opposed to scientific progress, even though they stress the value of maintaining ancient traditions. Another key aspect of Bhutan’s success, however, has been what psychologists describe as the tightness versus looseness of a culture.

A culture is defined as tight depending on the strength of social norms. Societies that are loose tend to have more relaxed norms and acceptance of rule-breakers. In broad terms, tight societies value family, community, and society more heavily, while loose cultures value the individual’s rights and freedoms foremost.

As Dr. Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, writes:

Bhutan, nestled in the high Himalayan mountains with its harsh weather conditions and often extreme isolation, is a tight culture. Gelfand further notes that neither type of society is better or worse in many situations, but in the case of a global pandemic, the tighter society is likely to be more successful. A tight culture, psychologists note, is one that will respond quickly and efficiently to society-wide threats. And the novel coronavirus has provided just that.

These differences aren’t random. Research in both nation-states and small-scale societies has shown that communities with histories of chronic threat—whether natural disasters, infectious diseases, famines or invasions—develop stricter rules that ensure order and cohesion. It makes good evolutionary sense: following rules helps us survive chaos and crisis. On the flipside, looser groups that have faced fewer threats can afford to be more permissive. (The Guardian)

Bhutan, nestled in the high Himalayan mountains with its harsh weather conditions and often extreme isolation, is a tight culture. Gelfand further notes that neither type of society is better or worse in many situations, but in the case of a global pandemic, the tighter society is likely to be more successful. A tight culture, psychologists note, is one that will respond quickly and efficiently to society-wide threats. And the novel coronavirus has provided just that.


While Bhutan was not one of the 33 nations studied in the 2011 report on differences between tight and loose cultures, neighboring India and nearby Pakistan both scored high in tightness, along with Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. Scoring low in tightness were countries including the Brazil, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Something left out from the study, however, is the role and influence of national leadership. Bhutan has a benevolent monarchy and a prime minister who is himself a medical doctor, appreciative of science and dedicated to the health of his people.

New Zealand, a very loose country, was nonetheless able to tighten up in response to the pandemic under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. It is possible, given Dr. Gelfand’s theory, that New Zealand has become tighter in recent years after facing the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which killed 185 people; as well as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, which left 50 people dead. In the wake of the latter tragedy, Ardern became a global icon for her heartwarming and steadfast response.*

Such leadership no doubt helped when she had to make the tough decision to cut off air travel and impose lockdowns. While these events in other nations have sparked economic insecurity, isolation, depression, and a rise in suicide rates, lockdowns in New Zealand had an almost opposite effect, according to a recently released study.

“Lockdown represented a major flashpoint in people’s lives and created an opportunity to stop, take stock, and to reflect and connect with others,” says psychologist Matthew Jenkins from Otago University in New Zealand. “Many people reported that kindness and helping behaviors became more common over this period.” (Science Alert)

Contrast this with the response from India, which was a tighter society according to the 2011 study. Early on, state and national measures prevailed and deaths overall were low. Similarly, India has been a beacon of forethought and global teamwork with Covishield—a partnering of India’s massive Serum Institute production capabilities with the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to make vaccines widely available both within India and to other countries. Notably, the vaccines that brough Bhutan’s great success came from India.


In recent weeks, however, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged individual caution but shied away from issuing a national lockdown. He has likewise traveled to packed political rallies recently, even as coronavirus cases rose, and has drawn criticism from religious leaders for neglecting non-Hindus. Speaking of Modi’s responses to religious celebrations during the pandemic, namely the recent huge Kumbh Mela, Khalid Rasheed, chairman of the Islamic Center of India, a nonprofit religious organization, said: “It is a clear example of double standards.” (The New York Times)

In these countries we can see how loose societies might tighten up and tight societies might become looser, given certain conditions and leaderships. And yet what is needed both within nations and beyond is a continuing tightening. Just as natural disasters or threats from outside might strengthen the cohesion of a country, the COVID-19 pandemic must strengthen our bonds as a human race—and ideally as a species that is just one among millions of species sharing our planet.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama urged us to think in this way last spring:

In this time of great fear, it is important that we think of the long-term challenges—and possibilities—of the entire globe. Photographs of our world from space clearly show that there are no real boundaries on our blue planet. Therefore, all of us must take care of it and work to prevent climate change and other destructive forces. This pandemic serves as a warning that only by coming together with a coordinated, global response will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face.

We must also remember that nobody is free of suffering, and extend our hands to others who lack homes, resources or family to protect them. This crisis shows us that we are not separate from one another—even when we are living apart. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to exercise compassion and help.

As a Buddhist, I believe in the principle of impermanence. Eventually, this virus will pass, as I have seen wars and other terrible threats pass in my lifetime, and we will have the opportunity to rebuild our global community as we have done many times before. I sincerely hope that everyone can stay safe and stay calm. At this time of uncertainty, it is important that we do not lose hope and confidence in the constructive efforts so many are making. (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

The pandemic has made it clear that individual and national efforts matter, but also that what affects others around the world can have a profound impact on people everywhere. As a test of our human ability to think and act globally when desperately needed, this pandemic has shown us our failures. We have failed to coordinate travel, economic, health, and communicative priorities, instead pitting these against one another.


Most pointedly, rich Western nations have hoarded vaccines at the immediate expense of poorer countries. As we know, this allows the virus to spread in those countries and mutate, potentially unleashing yet another variant that could elude existing vaccines. While the rollout in wealthy countries and some smaller societies such as Bhutan may be going well, the longer that other countries must wait for needed vaccines, the more global harm will occur. To use an example from the great Buddhist philosopher-poet Shantideva, we must think like the hand of a person with a thorn in our foot. If we do not remove the thorn—even though it is not bothering the hand—the foot may become infected and our whole body (hand included) will suffer. We must look beyond borders, beyond national successes in overcoming the coronavirus. We know, or are at least learning, that this does not work. As the global vaccine supply grows, let us work to make sure that it goes to those in need quickly, setting aside worries about profit or short-term national interests or relationships. For the long term, for humanity as a whole, we must let our compassion and action extend to those who simply need it most.

Buddhistdoor View: Finding our Humanity in a Time of Tragedy (Buddhistdoor Global)


Gelfand, Michele, et al. 2011. “Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study.” Science. Vol. 332, Issue 6033, pp. 1,100–1,104

See more

Why countries with ‘loose’, rule-breaking cultures have been hit harder by Covid (The Guardian)
New Zealand Survey Reveals The Positive Aspects of The Country’s Strict Lockdown (Science Alert)
India’s Health System Cracks Under the Strain as Coronavirus Cases Surge (The New York Times)
The world’s largest vaccine maker can’t keep up with the world’s worst COVID wave (Fortune)
‘Prayer Is Not Enough.’ The Dalai Lama on Why We Need to Fight Coronavirus With Compassion (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

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