Updated: April 27, 2021 10:24:14 am
Around 1,200 vaccination centres inoculating over 64% of the country’s adult population with the first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine: This is the secret behind Bhutan’s success of controlling the spread of the virus while major countries are seen scrambling to get more shots into arms.
Bhutan could have become one of the earliest to start a vaccination drive in the world. But the little Himalayan nation, which was given 1.5 lakh doses by India in January, chose to hold off the vaccination programme started till March 27 as Buddhist monks had advised the government that the time before that was not auspicious to start an inoculation drive. It used this delay to register all who needed to be vaccinated and planned a drive that would be fast and effected.
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In late March it set out one of the world’s fastest immunisation drives, inoculating a world-beating 64% of Bhutan’s adult population with the first dose. As of Friday (April 23), Bhutan, which has always emphasised its citizens’ well-being over national prosperity, has administered a first vaccine dose to more than 479,000 people which is equivalent to 64% of its total adult population. Only Seychelles has vaccinated a slightly higher proportion of people at 69%, but it took months to do so.
So, what has the Himalayan Kingdom done to achieve such numbers?
The vast majority of Bhutan’s first doses were administered at about 1,200 vaccination centers over a weeklong period in late March and early April. That rate was ahead of those of the United Kingdom and the United States, more than seven times that of neighboring India and nearly six times the global average. Bhutan is also ahead of several other geographically isolated countries with small populations, including Iceland and the Maldives.
Although Bhutan’s small population size is a major advantage over many other countries, credit to the extremely successful vaccination campaign must largely be given to the political leaders who understood the importance before things ran out of hand.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the “Dragon King”, formed the Guardians of Peace, an orange-jumpsuited national-service corps that has helped to set up and staff more than 1,200 vaccination stations across the country.
The volunteers delivered vaccines to healthcare centres, ensured citizens reported for appointments and educated the Bhutanese on Covid-19 protocols, including social distancing and mask-wearing. In areas which were inaccessible by road, authorities even arranged for helicopters to transport the shots.
“We’re really grateful for the vaccine. If not for the helicopter service, we’d have had to travel for more than five days [to get vaccinated],” Dema, a resident of a mountainside village in the the north-western district of Gasa where around 3,000 Bhutanese reside, told Kuensel Online (a local website).
Moreover, the Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, is himself a doctor and the Health Minister, Dechen Wangmo, holds degrees in cardiology and epidemiology from prestigious American universities. As such, quarantine measures in the country have also been strict: in March, the King himself spent a mandatory week in isolation after returning to Thimphu from a tour of southern provinces, and the Prime Minister locked himself away for 21 days following an official trip to Bangladesh.
A low Covid-19 caseload has also helped the country fast-track its inoculation process. Bhutan has recorded only 934 cases and reported just one death, aided by two carefully managed lockdowns. It has kept its borders closed for over a year now, with a few exceptions, and anyone who wishes to enter the country has to first go into mandatory quarantine for 21 days.
India’s contribution in Bhutan’s vaccination drive
India has also played a crucial role in the rapid roll out of the vaccine in Bhutan. In an effort to counter growing Chinese influence in the region, the country had received 600,000 free doses of the Covishield vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.
Bhutan had also received testing kits, personal protective equipment, N95 masks and essential medicines like paracetamol from New Delhi.
History of immunisation programmes in Bhutan
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo credited Bhutan’s prized possession — its established “cold chain” vaccination programme — to the present success. The country had earlier achieved universal immunisation in the 1990s the current immunisation is riding on the existing programmes.
The health minister had said that there were already a lot of systems in place and it made it very easy to introduce a new vaccine through a lot of advocacy and micro-level planning. Moreover, already-established systems meant people had very little hesitancy in taking the shots.
The vaccine outreach also included health workers who had completed the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI), which set the tone for a holistic public healthcare system in Bhutan and readied a cold-chain infrastructure for Covid-19 vaccines. Primary healthcare in Bhutan is free of cost. These healthcare workers were the ones who went around the country to administer the vaccines.
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