The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has administered COVID-19 vaccines to nearly its entire adult population. The campaign began as a national event on 27 March and on 8 April officials reported that 93 per cent of the country’s adults had received their first dose of the vaccine, urging remaining individuals to follow suit. The rapid vaccination campaign has been the fastest yet recorded in the world and puts Bhutan in third place among countries with the highest percentage of people vaccinated, behind Israel and the Seychelles.
Bhutan received its first 150,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India’s domestic production in January. However, instead of rolling out the vaccines in phases as most countries have done, Bhutan’s prime minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering, said that the kingdom would wait until it had enough doses to vaccinate all of its 533,000 eligible citizens at the same time. Early doses were given to citizens who needed to travel overseas before the planned rollout. Last month, an additional 400,000 doses of the vaccine were shipped to Bhutan from India.*
To set the date of the beginning of the vaccination campaign, national officials consulted the Zhung Dratshang, a body of Buddhist monks. According to the monks, the most auspicious date to begin vaccinations would be in late March. A further instruction given by the monks was that the first dose should be administered by, and given to, a woman born in the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac.
The first vaccination was given by Tshering Zangmo to Ninda Dema at the auspicious hour of 9:30am, after prayers were chanted and butter lamps lit. Tshering, a medical doctor who was elected as prime minister in 2018 on a strong public health platform, said that it made sense to make the vaccine rollout a large public event in order to foster widespread public acceptance.
In a statement posted to social media, the Ministry of Health wrote:
We are living in an extraordinary time. All of us have come together for one common aspiration to steer our country out of the pandemic. So far, more than 472,000 people have received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine since the start of the campaign on 27th March 2021. This vaccination campaign is not just about taking the shots in the arms, but it is a sense of purpose that each of us is embracing to protect our country and the people we love. This feat achieved through the united act, navigated by the devotion to our King will for sure go down in history.
But for now, we have a chapter to close and a few last miles to complete. All our efforts have been geared towards covering one hundred percent of the eligible population and today, as we look at the numbers, we are falling short by few percent. Thus, in this final stretch, we would like to reach out to those who haven’t vaccinated yet.
While you may not be aware, we have one and in fact the most significant reason to come forward and complete this last lag. Just as a parent would put the happiness and welfare of their family first, His Majesty the King has shared thoughts about taking the vaccine only after every eligible person in the country received their shots safely. Needless to mention, our beloved Dorji Sempa King personifies the noblest of qualities to ensure the protection of others before self.
Therefore, we too must fulfill our duty as responsible citizens and play our conscious part to complement the noble intention of our beloved King. All of us must come forward, so that we make way for His Majesty to receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Hence, it is our turn to act now.
Therefore, requesting every individual to visit the local health centers to protect yourself and your community for the disease that plagued us for more than a year now. More importantly, it is an opportunity to serve aspiration of our King.
The kingdom has seen only one COVID-19 death, recorded on 7 January 2021. The deceased was a 34-year-old man with pre-existing health conditions who died after being diagnosed on 21 December after being admitted to hospital in the capital Thimphu to treat his acute hepatitis. So far Bhutan has recorded 921 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with 45 of currently active and 875 recovered. The kingdom’s successful response to the pandemic, which has included work to ensure food security and create jobs for unemployed people in the tourism sector, has been lauded by health professionals and journalists around the world.
Some 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population of approximately 770,000 people are Buddhists, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. Hindus account for the majority of the remaining 25 per cent. Most Bhutanese Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.
* Buddhist Bhutan Poised to Begin Nationwide COVID Vaccination Program (Buddhistdoor Global)
Bhutan vaccinated almost all its adults against covid-19 in a week (The Economist)
‘The Advantage Of Our Smallness’: Bhutan Vaccinates 93% Of Adults In Under 2 Weeks (NPR)
Nationwide COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign, Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan (Facebook)
Bhutan’s COVID-19 Response Protects Those in Poverty (Borgen Magazine)