While most of the world was in lockdown to stop the coronavirus spread, Loten Zangmo arrived at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport on April 13. Although she was relieved to be in her country, she was also anxious about the future.
The 22-year-old student first heard about the pandemic just days before her university in the Indian state of Punjab closed as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus. At the time, she thought the virus would not last for long. But the Indian government imposed an extensive lockdown to tackle the situation.
Loten was among many foreign nationals stranded on the university campus. After Bhutanese students reached out to their embassy in New Delhi, their government arranged a repatriation flight to bring them back home safely.
“When we reached Paro airport, the officials gave us masks and provided other healthcare facilities. They took us directly to a quarantine facility from the airport,” Loten told DW
In mid-March, Bhutanese authorities mandated a 21-day quarantine period for people entering the country from abroad.
“When (the) first COVID-19 case was detected in the country, we traced his primary contacts within hours,” Rui Paulo de Jesus, the World Health Organization’s Bhutan representative, told DW.
As of Wednesday, Bhutan has reported zero coronavirus-related deaths and 59 infections.
“Bhutan’s Health Ministry acted swiftly right from the beginning, which is one of the reasons why Bhutan could keep COVID-19 at bay,” de Jesus said.
“Nevertheless, no country can claim victory at this stage, as the fight against COVID-19 is ongoing. It will be a long battle,” he added.
Preparedness and trust
Although Bhutan did not have any experience of dealing with the 2003 SARS outbreak, it did, however, prepare for a similar scenario in a simulation exercise just one month before COVID-19 emerged in China last year.
“The WHO and the Health Ministry conducted a simulation exercise at Paro airport in November 2019 to deal with potential disease outbreaks,” de Jesus said. “For this exercise, we used a patient infected with a new strain of coronavirus arriving at Paro Airport.”
The exercise was aimed at examining the staff’s response to a virus outbreak.
One of the factors that worked in favor of the country’s response to coronavirus was the high level of public trust in government officials, Jesus said. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and Health Minister Dechen Wangmo both have a background in public health.
“The big advantage is that the decision-makers understand the general principles of emergency preparedness and disease outbreak response, comprehend the technical guidance from the WHO and access scientific literature to guide decision-making,” Jesus said. As a result, the government decisions were based on scientific evidence, he added.
Strong sense of community
Bhutan, a landlocked nation in the Himalayas, is also one of the most isolated countries in the region. The authorities are protective of the environment and for decades have allowed only a limited number of tourists into the country. That, too, could be the reason behind a low number of coronavirus cases in Bhutan.
The South Asian country has a small population of just over 750,000. In addition to its small size, a sense of national solidarity also helped Bhutan through the initial wave of infections.
“People from all walks of life donated in both cash and kind to support the government,” said de Jesus.
Loten said she experienced firsthand how people volunteered to help her while she was in quarantine — sending her messages of support on social media. “Everyone around me was very supportive. Even strangers were willing to help.”
“To moving forward, the government needs to invest more in building a resilient healthcare system and long-term sustainability to respond to any public health crisis,” de Jesus underlined.
“Will we be able to respond timely and properly if the number of cases increases?” de Jesus said, adding: “A contingency plan for a worst-case scenario has been developed and is ready to be implemented.”