Written 15 April 2020.
The recent coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. It has affected the life of every individual, either directly or through disruptions it has caused to societal normalcy. Flights from London back to my home country, Bhutan, transfer through Delhi or Bangkok, and amidst fears that the cities were soon going to go into lockdown, I had to travel home around mid March. I did not think for once that I would contract the novel coronavirus. This mentality can mostly be attributed to the way the British government was reacting to the situation while I was in London. For many Londoners, life continued as normal, despite the alarming rate at which Covid-19 cases were growing. At Heathrow Airport, staff were not wearing even simple surgical masks. I was not screened for symptoms before boarding, nor was it mandatory for me to wear a mask or protective gear on the flight. In short, protocol measures were severely lacking in the face of this global pandemic.
Nine hours later, I landed in Delhi. Unlike Heathrow, Delhi Airport has implemented a relatively thorough health procedure. Immediately after landing, I was screened for a fever and the airport health team cleared me by stamping a certificate to be presented at immigration. Approximately five hours later, I boarded my flight to Bhutan.
I landed in Bhutan in the early hours of 18 March. Screening procedures by medical staff were swift and efficient, and I was out of the airport within half an hour. Coming from London, I was extremely impressed with how our small developing nation was dealing with the situation. A few days before I arrived, the government had announced a mandatory quarantine period of two weeks (which has now been extended to three weeks), for every person flying into the country, in a facility. However, these ‘facilities’ were actually hotels that were volunteered as isolation centers, and the hotel employees worked to ensure that we were all quarantined comfortably.
Medical teams at the quarantine centres screened us for coronavirus symptoms twice a day for the first three days, and we were told to call the 24 hour call line in case of any emergency. Being in a mountainous region, the hotel I stayed at was surrounded by a beautiful pine forest. Wonderful meals were provided daily and quarantine initially felt more like a peaceful retreat.
However, eight days in, I lost my sense of smell. After failing to recover for two more days, I informed the health staff. Immediately after I reported my concern, they collected my sputum and mucus samples through swabs, which were sent to be tested for the novel coronavirus. 12 hours later, I was woken by a call from the Health Ministry telling me I had tested positive, making me the fourth person in the whole country confirmed to have the virus (now increased to five). So far, all cases have been imported from abroad, and there have been no community transmissions as a result of the country’s strict quarantine measures. Early the next day, on 29 March, I was given a hazmat suit and brought to the National Hospital in the capital, from where I am currently writing this piece. Healthcare is publicly provided and free of cost in Bhutan and as such, I have received the best medical treatment possible by our doctors, who ensured that my symptoms did not worsen; overall, I have faced no issues whatsoever in the past seven days.
My experience with Covid-19 reflects the comparative efficiency and effectiveness with which Bhutan has contained the virus thus far, particularly in comparison to the global superpowers. Additionally, Bhutanese leaders have been far more involved than many of their Western counterparts in their efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus; for example, the King is actively working to ensure that the closed border with India does not detrimentally impact the imported food supply.
Bhutan is not a rich country, but its people are known to come together in difficult times. Private companies have donated millions to our national Covid-19 fund and contributions of cash and other goods have come from groups including farmers, foundations, civil servants, and the Bhutanese diaspora around the globe. Families within Bhutan have voluntarily committed to social distancing, even though a national lockdown has not been mandated. Numerous task forces have been put into place in different parts of the country (which is largely rural), as well as other special offices to manage the supply chain from India. The country’s response to the current situation is not only preventive in nature against this new pandemic, but also includes preparatory measures against economic challenges that will likely accompany the outbreak. While crisis management is arguably easier for Bhutan due to its small size (it has a population of around 700,000), the governance displayed and the cooperation among Bhutanese citizens remains commendable.
The coronavirus is proving to be a major global crisis, but instead of playing the blame game like many nations, Bhutan has implemented proactive and efficient measures to combat the virus’s spread and mitigate its worst economic effects. While it is a small, developing country, Bhutan’s response to the novel coronavirus still indicates to the world that national solidarity can effectively combat and alleviate the worst effects of this pandemic.
Lhachi Seldon is a member of the Global Health policy centre’s working group.