The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has been commended for the rapid rollout of its COVID-19 vaccination program, which has seen the Buddhist Kingdom fully vaccinate 90 per cent of its adult population in a week. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has described Bhutan as a “beacon of hope for the region, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and devastated families.” (UNICEF)
Bhutan’s domestic program to administer vital second doses began on 20 July after several months of planning and logistical preparedness that centered on setting up a supply chain of cold storage facilities at health clinics across the country. Because many communities are located in remote and mountainous regions, helicopters were deployed to rapidly deliver the vaccines across the country, and teams of volunteers then set out in force to distribute them among local residents.
“A total of 2,401 health workers helped to vaccinate the eligible population with the second dose from 20–26 July across the country, arguably the fastest vaccination campaign to be executed during a pandemic. The precision with which Bhutan conducted mass-vaccination campaigns within a week is an extraordinary achievement,” UNICEF’s Bhutan representative Dr. Will Parks said in a statement, which continued:
In particular, the Royal Government of Bhutan made exhaustive efforts to reach all target groups. Health workers organized vaccinations at community centers but also conducted home-visits to vaccinate the elderly and people with disabilities and trekked to higher altitudes to reach the nomadic herders. Children aged 12–17 years in the high-risk areas along the southern border towns are also receiving COVID-19 vaccines.
Bhutan is now a beacon of hope for the region, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and devastated families. The successes are testimony to Bhutan’s swift response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In such challenging times, the leadership of His Majesty The King, the blessings of His Holiness the Je Khenpo and the collective efforts of the Royal Government of Bhutan, local leaders, young people and development partners have been instrumental in Bhutan’s huge leap forward. (UNICEF)
At the time of writing on 28 July, Bhutan had reported 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two related deaths, with 488,872 vaccine doses administered. Total global cases have exceeded 195.3 million, with 4.2 million related deaths recorded and 3.93 billion vaccine doses administered.*
Bhutan was quick to adopt a comprehensive, evidence-based tracing and testing regime soon after the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus began spreading around the world in early 2020, putting in place strict border controls and a three-week quarantine procedure for all returnees to avoid overloading its healthcare system. The coordinated response has been bolstered by Bhutan’s traditional communal values and free universal healthcare system, a key aspect of the kingdom’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy.
Earlier this year, Bhutan became the first country to receive free shipments of COVID-19 vaccines as part of India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts, receiving a consignments of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India’s domestic production in January and March. A subsequent national inoculation campaign saw the country distribute the first round of vaccines to more than 90 per cent of the population in just 10 days.**
Bhutan quickly used up the initial 550,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by India. The Bhutanese government’s subsequent international appeal for donations saw several Western countries offer vaccines, including 500,000 Moderna shots from the US and 250,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from Denmark. Bulgaria, China, Croatia, and other nations have also pledged to provide more than 150,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
All Bhutanese citizens aged over 18 were eligible to be vaccinated. By Tuesday, some 480,000 people were reported to have received their second vaccine shot, out of an eligible population of 530,000 people. Bhutan has a total population of about 770,000 people. Bhutan has also ordered a further 200,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is expected to be made available to those under 18.
UNICEF’s Dr. Parks observed:
As we celebrate the successes in Bhutan, we must not forget that the COVID-19 pandemic is still not over—for Bhutan, for its neighbors in the region, and for the world. Public health safety measures such as physical distancing, hand-washing with soap, and wearing of masks are still important.
Vaccines will help us end the COVID-19 pandemic, but only if everyone has access to them. According to WHO’s summary of latest available official data, four million health workers in South Asia are still not fully vaccinated.
We are thankful to the commitment of the United States Government and other countries in coming forth at a critical time. UNICEF urges well supplied countries to continue to donate COVID-19 vaccines to COVAX, the international vaccine equity initiative, so that countries that are grappling with poor vaccination coverage and dangerous surges in infection rates can get the vaccines they so desperately need to save lives. Bhutan’s example also shows us that countries need greater funding in preparing for swift rollouts of vaccines and that preparatory efforts go a long way in reaching the remotest areas. (UNICEF)
Remote, landlocked, and sandwiched between two political and economic heavy-hitters India and China, Bhutan is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist country. The ancient spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, in the eighth century.
Most Bhutanese—about 75 per cent of a population of some 770,000 people—are Buddhists. The majority of the remaining 25 per cent, mainly people of the Lhotshampa ethnic group of Nepalese descent, practice Hinduism. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.
* Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center
** Buddhist Bhutan Vaccinates 93 Per Cent of Adults for COVID-19 in 10 Days, Buddhist Bhutan Poised to Begin Nationwide COVID Vaccination Program, and Buddhist Bhutan the First Nation to Receive Free COVID-19 Vaccines from India (Buddhistdoor Global)
UNICEF hails Bhutan’s successful completion of full COVID-19 vaccinations for 90% of the eligible population (UNICEF)
Bhutan’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign (Kuensel)
COVID: Bhutan fully vaccinates 90 percent of adults within a week (Al Jazeera)
Bhutan fully vaccinates 90% of eligible adults within a week (Associated Press)
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