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Buddhist Bhutan Poised to Begin Nationwide COVID Vaccination Program

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Photo by Craig Lewis

The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has announced that it will roll out its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program from 27 March, an auspicious date selected by senior monks of the Central Monastic Body. The government announced that the program could commence after the government of India confirmed that its second consignment of the Covishield vaccine, comprised of 400,000 doses, would arrive from India today.

“Pleased to receive additional 400,000 doses of Covishield, making possible the nationwide rollout of our vaccination program. People of Bhutan and I remain grateful,” the office of  Bhutan’s prime minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering, said in an announcement shared over social media today. “We pray these gestures during the pandemic turn into boundless blessings for the people of India.”

Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body, the Zhung Dratshang, conducted a three-day Sangay Menlha or Medicine Buddha ceremony from 20–22 March to coincide with the arrival of the vaccine shipment.

On 20 January, the Himalayan kingdom became the first recipient of a free shipment of COVID-19 vaccines as part of India’s ongoing vaccine diplomacy efforts, receiving 150,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India’s domestic production.*

Bhutan today received 400,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine from India. From twitter.com
Bhutan today received 400,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine from India. From twitter.com

Prime Minister Tshering, a medical doctor by training, said at the time that the kingdom would wait until it had accumulated sufficient doses to vaccinate all 536,000 eligible citizens at the same time. The government subsequently decided to offer early doses to those Bhutanese who needed to travel overseas and may therefore be unable to receive the vaccine during the national rollout.

India, which has a world-leading vaccine industry, including the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine producer, cemented a partnership agreement early in the pandemic to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine domestically under license, using the brandname Covishield. Earlier this month, India reported that it had already stockpiled some 80 million doses, a portion of which were contributed to the World Health Organization-backed ­COVAX initiative to distribute vaccines to less prosperous countries.

Under its distribution program, hashtagged #VaccineMaitri, India has also been delivering millions of free vaccines to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, the Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka.

The Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel reported that of the 536,000 Bhutanese who are eligible for the vaccination, 480,372 people had already registered as of 17 March. Healthcare personnel will visit homes to vaccinate those who are unable to attend community vaccination centers.

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, 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 the Bhutan’s traditional communal values—in which all levels of society, including the royal family, have acted in concert to observe social-distancing and support other response measures—and the country’s free universal healthcare system, a key aspect of the kingdom’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy.

Bhutan’s government ordered its second national lockdown in December, during a period when the number of confirmed infections in the country rose from about 400 to more than 700. The first infection in Bhutan was detected in an American tourist in March last year.**

At the time of writing on 22 March, Bhutan had reported 869 confirmed cases of COVID-19  and one related death, the lowest number of recorded cases in South Asia, with 867 people recovered. Total global cases have exceeded 123 million, with 2.7 million related deaths recorded and 69 million recovered.***

Bhutanese monks conducted a three-day Medicine Buddha ceremony
from 20–22 March. From facebook.com

emote, landlocked, and perched in the rarified air of the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom. 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.

Roughly 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population of some 770,000 people identify as Buddhists, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. 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.

Buddhist Bhutan the First Nation to Receive Free COVID-19 Vaccines from India (Buddhistdoor Global)

** Sole Coronavirus Patient in Buddhist Bhutan Flies Home and Bhutan Closes Borders for Two Weeks After Reporting First Coronavirus Case (Buddhistdoor Global)

*** COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

See more

PM urges people to register for Covid-19 vaccine (Kuensel)

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