How Bhutan’s rapid vaccine rollout combined religious tradition and scientific pragmatism

KARMA DORJI, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions, Posted APRIL 3, 2021; Updated April 13, 2021

In a little over two weeks, the kingdom vaccinated nearly its entire eligible adult population, drawing international media attention. Here’s the inside story of how that happened.

The chief Buddhist abbot of Bhutan, His Holiness Je Khenpo, blessing Covid-19 vaccines in the kingdom’s eastern Lhuentse province. Photo: Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan

Unity under the young king’s leadership, an efficient science-based government, and support from the nation’s revered Buddhist clergy all played a crucial role in Bhutan’s success with their first round of Covid-19 vaccinations. In a little over 16 days the kingdom’s first nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign launched March 27, 2021, covered an astounding 475,651 people, which may not sound like much until you consider that the number is more than an estimated 93 percent of everyone eligible to receive the vaccine in the country (figure last updated April 12, 2021). Meanwhile, upholding Buddhist ideals of leadership, the nation’s much-beloved young king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, vowed to take the vaccine only after it was offered to every eligible Bhutanese citizen, spurring untold numbers to get their shot as quickly as possible.

The landlocked Himalayan nation of approximately 800,000 people first acquired the early shipments of the UK-and-Sweden-based AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in India under the name Covishield, in January. But they were put on ice, literally, because February was deemed an inauspicious ‘Black Month’ according to the astrological calculations of the kingdom’s revered Buddhist clergy, the Dratshang Lhentshog.

Bhutanese people routinely consult such astrological charts, released annually by the national religious body, for matters personal and official. Those recommendations can range from favorable dates to convene the National Assembly to opening times for government building projects, wedding and engagement planning, setting travel dates, and choosing the proper days to raise religious prayer flags to enhance one’s good karma and spiritual merit.

Once the favorable dates are set, matters usually proceed at an efficient pace, seemingly buoyed by the propitious celestial alignments.

Case in point: the vaccination success story that’s making international news.

Monks and medical professionals gather for a ceremony to consecrate Covid-19 vaccines surrounded by portraits of Bhutan’s kings past and present. Photo: Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan.

Bhutan received the Covishield vaccines from the Indian government through a vaccine-diplomacy program called Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship). In the run-up to the nationwide vaccination program, the young king—who is the rallying face of Bhutan’s fight against the pandemic—made acquiring COVID-19 vaccines a top national priority. Other members of the universally beloved royal family; religious figures such as His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the kingdom’s chief Buddhist abbot; Bhutan’s democratically-elected prime minister; the health minister; prominent citizens; and young social media influencers all threw their collective weight behind the vaccination program. Their endorsements assuaged fears, quelled rumors, fake news, conspiracy theories, and just plain non-truths percolating through the internet.

The Prime Minister, a practicing medical surgeon, and the Health Minister, a brilliantly capable graduate of the Yale School of Public Health, immediately took to national television. They outlined the vaccination program, the process, timing and locations of the vaccination rollout, what to expect before and after the first shot. The government flew shipments of the vaccine on domestic planes and emergency service helicopters to remote locations and regions across the kingdom’s challenging mountainous terrain.

Above: Covid-19 vaccines are loaded on an emergency recue helicopter to be flown over the country’s remote mountainous terrain, in preparation for the nationwide campaign to inoculate everyone over 18 years old. Photo: Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan

On March 24, as the final consignment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the far-flung eastern Lhuentse province, completing distribution to all 20 districts of the country, the chief abbot, Je Khenpo, arrived with his entourage of monks and religious elders. They performed televised purification and consecration rites over the vaccines, setting devout Buddhist minds at rest.

On the morning of March 27, vaccinations opened across the country with the first jabs given, where possible, to 30-year-old women born under auspicious astrological signs in the Monkey Year, as advised by the clergy.

In Thimphu, the nation’s capital, vaccinations began at the religiously predetermined stroke of half-past nine in the morning, western time, chosen from the state astrological charts. Ninda Dema, a 30-year-old intellectual property rights inspector for the government, had the right star alignments to receive the first jab. A nurse, another 30-year-old woman, born in the same year and under similarly opportune conditions, vaccinated her, kickstarting the kingdom’s ambitious campaign to provide the vaccine to all ages recommended to receive the vaccine under international guidelines.

Ninda Dema—the 30-year-old chosen in accordance with the Bhutanese state clergy’s astrological recommendations to receive the first jab of the vaccine—dedicates her Medicine Buddha prayer for universal healing under a smiling portrait of Bhutan’s young king, surrounded by dignitaries. Photo: Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan

As the symbolic 30-year-old chosen to receive the first Covid-19 vaccine shot in the country, Ninda prepared herself a day earlier by praying at two famous Buddhist temples in the capital. Her mother, who lives in the neighboring province of Paro, visited and prayed at eight temples on Ninda’s behalf.

Shortly before 9:30 am on March 27, the young woman sat on a chair, surrounded by government ministers and dignitaries (including the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan), and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, composed herself, and recited the Medicine Buddha mantra as she received her shot. Tayatha Om Bekandze Bekandze Maha Bekandze Randza Samu Gate Soha. “May all sentient beings who are unwell be liberated from sickness and pain,” she prayed, “and may all forms of illness and suffering disappear, never to return again.”

In contrast, an article in the New York Times on April 5, 2021, quoted the leader of a US-based nondenominational Christian ministry who said, “The vaccine is not the savior.” He told the Times that he had received a divine message that God was the ultimate healer and deliverer.

According to a statistic from the Pew Research Center used in that Times article, 45 percent of White Evangelical Christians said this past February they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19. That study shows 36 percent of Protestants and 22 percent of Catholics gave the same response. Despite the progress made under a new administration that backs the science behind the vaccinations, the Times reports that “The sheer significant size of the community poses a major problem for the country’s ability to recover from a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of half a million Americans.” Compare that to one COVID-19-related death in Bhutan to date.

Bhutan’s example should—but likely won’t—be held up in the US as proof that deep faith and science can coexist. That they can help shore each other up for the common good.

Isn’t that, after all, the highest purpose of both?

101-year-old Phurba Deki, receiving her Covid-19 Vaccine in Bhutan's southcentral region of Dagana.

Author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories & Images from Bhutan, Karma Singye Dorji is a writer and journalist who has led exclusive Bhutan journeys since 1999.