WHEN INDIA presented Bhutan with a generous donation of covid-19 vaccine in January, the neighboring kingdom made an unusual choice. Rather than rushing to vaccinate its 800,000 citizens, the government sought advice from Zhung Dratshang, a body of Buddhist monks. The stars were not auspicious, they reigned. Better to wait two months and then make sure the first dose is both given and given to a woman born in the year of the monkey.
Bhutan therefore waited until March 27 before Tshering Zangmo administered the first blow to Ninda Dema. The injection took place at a school in the capital, Thimphu, at the auspicious time of 9:30 a.m., after prayers were sung and butter lamps lit. But then there was no slowing down. Within a week, 85% of Bhutan’s adult population, beating the world, had received a first injection. Only two countries, Israel and Seychelles, vaccinated a (slightly) higher proportion of people, but both took months to do so (see graph).
Credit is due not only to Bhutan’s astrologers, but also to its political leaders. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the “Dragon King,” trained the Peacekeepers, a national service corps in orange overalls that have helped set up and staff more than 1,200 vaccination posts across the country . The Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, is himself a doctor and the Minister of Health, Dechen Wangmo, has degrees in cardiology and epidemiology from prestigious American universities.
Elected in 2018 on a platform focusing on public health, their government has responded vigorously to the pandemic. Quarantine measures have been strict: in March, the king himself spent a mandatory week in solitary confinement after returning to Thimphu after touring the southern provinces, and the prime minister locked himself up for 21 days following an official trip to Bangladesh.
Mr Tshering, whose Facebook page is largely devoted to educating the public about covid-19, explains that because the logistics of vaccine storage and delivery are complex and some people suffer from side effects and everyone will need a reminder, that made sense. foster popular acceptance by turning the campaign into a lively national event. The tight schedule was also reasonable for another reason. India, a traditional benefactor of Bhutan, has not provided its little ally with a full supply of vaccines all at once. Waiting long enough to arrive enabled Bhutanese to avoid rationing. By vaccinating everyone quickly, Bhutan has also put subtle pressure on India, which faces its own supply issues, to deliver the necessary boosters soon.
Although Bhutan has only suffered one death from covid-19, it is not without problems. Unemployment is at an all time high, albeit only 5%. The cost of green peppers, the main ingredient (along with the yak cheese) of ema datshi, the staple, reached 700 ngultrum per kilo, or nearly $ 10. The Home Secretary recently resigned after allegedly making a false insurance claim on his car. Another scandal, involving army officers and judges, as well as an intermediary woman, makes tongues tremble. Again, these are issues the rest of the world would love to have. ■
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “One-week wonder”