Bhutan Scripts Rare COVID-19 Success Story

The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has scripted a rare success story in the South Asian region devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting just two deaths, about 2,500 cases and inoculating 90% of its adult population in one of the world’s fastest inoculation campaigns.

Experts say mobilizing the community, meticulous planning by authorities and international donations of vaccines paved the way for the tiny country with limited resources to get a grip on the pandemic and emerge ahead of most nations.

When the coronavirus began ravaging countries last year, Bhutan offered financial incentives to people to augment its small pool of health workers and simultaneously called for volunteers.

Thousands stepped forward.

“Within a very short period of time the volunteer system crashed because there were so many people wanting to volunteer. And it was an amazing experience to see that instead of the incentives people were registering to volunteer, wanting to give something back to the community,” Dechen Wangmo, the country’s health minister, told VOA.

The country now has a roughly 30,000-strong force of citizens volunteers. Dressed in bright orange and known as “desuups,” they have boosted the efforts of some 350 doctors and 3,000 health workers. They have helped reinforce public health messages such as encouragement of wearing masks, and assisted in testing, surveillance and contact tracing among Bhutan’s approximately 750,000 people.

The first half a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, donated by India, were administered in March during a 16-day campaign that was timed to coincide with auspicious dates suggested by Buddhist monks. Choosing the right time to roll out the vaccines helped build faith in the shot -- Bhutan is a Buddhist country and is sometimes called the world’s last Shangri-la.