KARMA DORJI, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions
In a breathtakingly rapid response to the Covid 19 pandemic, the kingdom's health services covered nearly the entire eligible adult population with the first two doses of the vaccine, drawing widespread international media attention and earning its young health minister an executive chair at the World Health Assembly. Here’s the inside scoop 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
By July 2021, 90 percent of Bhutan's eligible population was vaccinated with only 21 reported deaths from the pandemic. Faith in the young king’s leadership, the government's belief in science, and the support of the revered Buddhist clergy all played critical roles in the success of Bhutan’s Covid-19 vaccination drive. 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). To boost coverage, the nation’s 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 citizens 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 boost one’s karma and spiritual merit. Once those favorable dates are set, matters usually proceed at a fast clip, buoyed by the religious blessings and seemingly propitious celestial alignments.
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 first 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 was the rallying face of Bhutan’s fight against the pandemic—made acquiring COVID 19 vaccines a top national priority. Other members of the well-loved 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. Such endorsements assuaged fears, quelled rumors, fake news and conspiracy theories seeping in through the internet.
The Prime Minister, a practicing medical surgeon, and the Health Minister, a brilliant young 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 to remote valleys across the kingdom’s challenging mountainous terrain on domestic flights and emergency service helicopters.
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 about the efficacy of the vaccines.
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, prescribed by the Buddhist 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.”
By 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 data from the Pew Research Center used in that Times article, 45 percent of White Evangelical Christians said they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Bhutan’s example should—but likely won’t—be held up in the US as proof that faith and science can coexist for the greater good. Isn’t that, after all, the highest purpose of both Science and Religion?
101-year-old Phurba Deki, receiving her Covid-19 Vaccine in Bhutan's southcentral region of Dagana.
To learn more about the future of Bhutan's pandemic response, watch "Prepping for the Next Pandemic," an interview with the Bhutanese Health Minister at the Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories & Images from Bhutan, Karma Singye Dorji is a writer and former journalist who has led and curated cultural treks and journeys to Bhutan since 1999.
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