Even as countries like South Korea, China, Taiwan and Germany are being lauded for their efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak while attempting to re-start their nations, one country that has failed to gain much attention is Bhutan.
Bhutan has only nine cases of COVID-19 and it has a story of effective management to tell behind its success. Moreover, the country of over 750,000 people is landlocked between India and China — the former is where cases have been rising, albeit gradually; and the latter is where the outbreak began.
Moreover, Bhutan shares an open border with India, and there were a number of students who were returning to the country from infected countries. This was before the nation was put under a lockdown, though the lockdown itself was never very stringent— while everything else was closed, businesses were allowed to function.
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The country reported its first case on March 6. A US tourist tested positive for the virus, and was immediately quarantined, and, according to reports, he received considerable attention from both the country's highest officials and the public. The King of Bhutan, in fact, also paid a personal visit.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
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Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The government then initiated intensive contact tracing and quarantine for anyone who has come in contact with tourists. Bhutan had already put in place a National Preparedness and Response Plan and an emergency committee in February. Over 120 quarantine facilities were set up for anyone entering the country.
"At such a time, we must exhibit the strength that comes out of our smallness, remain united and support one another. During such exceptional circumstances, the government will take the responsibility of alleviating any suffering to the people due to the virus," Bhutan's king said, and the population of the country took it to heart.
For instance, private hotel owners in the country offered their premises and resources for free to the government. Restaurants provided food free of charge, while locals, according to reports, helped in setting up quarantine facilities in their villages.
Meanwhile, the government also decided to seal its borders and ban public gatherings. It announced relief measures for those who will suffer due to the lockdown. Bhutan's king also hit the streets, visiting several districts in the country, particularly those that share their border with India.
All this was particularly laudable, and necessary, for Bhutan has limited resources when it comes to healthcare, reports suggest. Writing in The Diplomat, Sonam Ongmo and Tej Parikh— the former a journalist based in Bhutan and the latter a policy analyst and journalist— say the landlocked country has just over 300 doctors, one ICU expert and only a couple of chest specialists.
A surge of cases, and community transmission within the country, could have resulted in a catastrophe— which seems to have been averted, for now, by Bhutan's quick response.