Former ambassador of Bhutan to Bangladesh Sonam Tobden Rabgye talks about Bhutan's successful fight against COVID-19 in a Webinar
The remarkable success of Bhutan’s fight against the pandemic may be summed up in the sentence: So far not a single life has been lost to COVID-19. The following table of figures as of October 5, reveals more on this amazing feat:
No. of COVID Cases: 298
No. of recoveries: 237
No. under treatment: 61
No. tested: 1,42,510
No. quarantined: 14,593.
The first case of COVID-19 was detected on a 76 year-old American tourist with serious underlying medical conditions on March 5. Against overwhelming odds, he survived and made a full recovery after being evacuated back to his country. His Majesty the King had spent a sleepless night at the Health Ministry, personally monitoring his condition along with other members of the Cabinet.
Since then, the vast majority of positive cases were detected in state sponsored 3-week mandatory quarantine facilities from Bhutanese returning home from working or studying abroad. Bhutan has thus far managed to prevent any local transmission of the disease.
Bhutan’s outstanding results can be attributed to the following:
1. Leadership of His Majesty The King: Like in many countries that responded well to the onset of the virus, we can attribute Bhutan’s success to great leadership. On March 22 His Majesty spoke to the people on National TV with his characteristic love, sincerity and clarity. He explained the reasons behind the tough measures being undertaken to deal with the pandemic. The Royal Address was serious and sobering, but reassuring and comforting.
On March 24– just four days of the Birth of the second Prince, His Majesty embarked on a nation-wide tour to meet local authorities, frontline workers, students, farmers and to see first-hand the measures being put in place to deal with the pandemic. Since then, such tours have been undertaken in 19 out of 20 districts. As I speak now, Their Majesties the Fourth and Fifth Kings are in different parts of southern Bhutan that share open borders with the neighboring Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The Kings of Bhutan do not exercise leadership from plush palaces but practice it on the frontlines of Ground Zero.
2. The Government has a core team with strong health background. Our PM is a practicing surgeon and the Health Minister a Masters in Public Health. The Foreign Minister and Health Secretary are both medical doctors. Of interest to this gathering is that three of the four, including the PM and Foreign Minister, are products of the excellent medical education in Bangladesh.
3. The Ministry of Health, led by its young Minister, has been focused and proactive. By the time the WHO declared corona virus a global emergency in January 2020, Bhutan had already formed response teams and identified regional facilities in the event of an outbreak. A National Preparedness & Response Plan was ready in Feb. 2020. All these activities were carried out under the personal leadership of His Majesty The King.
4. The Health Ministry has rigorously followed the proven strategy of Test, Trace and Treat plan. As soon someone tests positive he is kept in an isolation unit in a hospital until negative test results are returned twice within a 24 hour gap and further confined to de-isolation for 14 days before being discharged. All primary contacts are traced immediately and put in quarantine facilities for 21 days. Mass screenings are conducted in vulnerable areas of potential community transmission.
5. During the first National Lockdown in early August, which lasted for 3 weeks, the people abided by the rules while government agencies & volunteers distributed essential items. Senior citizens, especially those with weaker immunities, received extra support from His Majesty’s Welfare Office, including the option of moving to medical facilities. People who couldn’t afford to buy rations were provided assistance.
6. A ‘secret weapon’ in Bhutan’s battle against the pandemic is the multifarious service provided by ubiquitous volunteers in orange suits called ‘Desuups’ who have undergone rigorous three to six weeks training in community service and disaster management. His Majesty The King initiated the Desuup program in 2011 and today there are around 15,000 of them providing critical support to health workers and law enforcement agencies. Most of them are educated youngsters who perform their voluntary duties with sincerity and courtesy. Members of the Royal Family and a former Prime Minister have signed up to become Dessups. Her Majesty the Queen is an ardent supporter and often provides pack meals to these volunteers in the capital from the Palace Kitchen.
7. Bhutan, like all other countries, faces immense challenges due to the adverse impact on our economy especially in the growing tourism sector. His Majesty initiated a National Resilience Fund of Nu 30 billion (US $400 M), which compared to Bhutan’s GDP, is perhaps among the biggest economic relief packages in the world. The NRF grants 100% interest waiver on any loans from April to Sept 2020. It was reduced to 50% interest waiver from October 2020 till March 2021. A Relief Fund by His Majesty was established to provide monthly allowance to around 23,000 who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Bhutan’s efforts in tackling COVID-19 would not have been possible without the support of the international community. Despite their own challenges and lockdowns, India kept the supply chain of essential commodities and medicines to Bhutan always open. The Indian government facilitated the return of 1,350 Bhutanese students and provided medical equipment and essential medicines. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was among the first leaders to send medical equipment and medicines to Bhutan. The Republic of Korea, Australia, Sweden and Singapore have also contributed in cash and kind.
Allow me to conclude with a few thoughts on how we can intensify sub-regional cooperation during this pandemic. This ‘once in a century’ pandemic presents immense challenges, which could be turned into opportunities.
Bhutan and Bangladesh have finally agreed to sign a Preferential Trade Agreement that will give duty free access to additional 16 products from Bhutan. (The former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Bhutan, Jishnu Roy Choudhury and I had the honor of seeing this project through during our tenures as Ambassadors in Thimphu and Dhaka). We were also pleased to facilitate the successful trial-run of transporting 1000 MT of stone aggregates from Bhutan using inland waterways from Dubri, Assam to Naryanganj Port Dhaka to in July 2019. Given the huge reservoir of goodwill that exists between Bangladesh, Bhutan and India the few hurdles in using inland waterways permanently can easily be overcome. And during Ambassador Jishnu and my tenure trade value between Bhutan & Bangladesh rose significantly.
In 2016 export by Bhutan USD 32 million & Import from Bangladesh: USD 2.94 million, total USD 34.94 million. In 2017 export by Bhutan: USD 47.11 million & Import from Bangladesh: USD 4.42 million, total : USD 51.53 million. In 2018: export by Bhutan: USD 80.38 million and Import from Bangladesh: USD 6.13 million, total: USD 86.51 million.
However there is more potential if connectivity and other hurdles are overcome as Bangladesh is a huge market whose economy is rising steadily.
If Bhutanese trucks can ply directly from Bhutan to Bangladesh under the framework of BBIN to export of boulders to Bangladesh and bring back Ready Made Garments and other goods, it would make trade between our two countries easier and more cost effective. The leaders of India and Bangladesh are sensitive to Bhutan’s fragile and limited road infrastructure, and may consider our border towns to be the point to unload all cargo. In my opinion, rejecting BBIN it in totomaybe tantamount to ‘throwing the baby with the bath water’.
Bangladesh, which is in dire need of clean energy has expressed interest to import hydropower from Bhutan and even invest in it. In May 2016 the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh H.E. Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali declared to the Bhutanese media that his Prime Minister had approved USD 1B for the 1,125 MW Dorjilung hydropower project in Bhutan. Such a Trilateral project will serve as an example of sub-regional cooperation, which benefits all the three participating countries.
The governments of Bhutan, Bangladesh and India have been discussing the possibility of Bhutan importing Internet bandwidth from Bangladesh for some time. In 2016 a technical survey team by from Bhutan identified 2 routes: Sylhet-Tamabil-Shilling-Guwahati-Samdrupjonjkhar & Akhaura-Agartala-Guwahati-Samdrupjonjkhar. As the project could not materialize, it was kept as a flagship project in the 12th Five-Year Plan by the previous government. Credit must be given to the former Communications Minister Lyonpo DN Dhungyel for following up on the project in earnest between 2014-2016.
Once the vaccine to cure COVID-19 is discovered we should not expect tourists from the US, Europe and Japan to come rushing to Bhutan. Bhutan needs to target high-end tourists from the region. Tourists from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka would be willing to spend at par with their counterparts from Japan, the US and Europe provided we can provide matching services and facilities. Bhutan’s pristine environment and GNH could be marketed to welcome visitors from the Bay of Bengal area to relax the soul and body. And nationals of countries who are exempt from paying the stipulated USD 200-250 per day could be enticed to visit during the offseason, when many hotels and facilities go underutilized.
The coronavirus will continue to cast a dark shadow over our lives for years to come. But like His Majesty the King keeps telling the people of Bhutan, if all of us come together and tackle common challenges as a team with imagination, fortitude and commitment, there is nothing we cannot overcome. This holds true for each of our countries, region and indeed the world.