BHUTAN: Bhutan’s king, leads from the front as he treks across mountains to hold down COVID-19 fatality count. Even though Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008 when the king relinquished his absolute powers, the loyalty to the royal family still dominates the nation’s socio-political landscape, and his mere presence among the citizens, says Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s prime minister.
“When the king travels for miles and knocks … to alert people about the pandemic, then his humble words are respected and taken very seriously,” said Tshering. “His Majesty’s presence is far more powerful than just issuing public guidelines,” Tshering adds. His presence assures people they are not alone in their fight against the pandemic, the prime minister said.
The king does not like to boast of his good deeds too and declines every request for an interview. Still, one can browse through his social media pages on Instagram and Facebook and follow him and his work and travels during the pandemic.
Wearing a baseball cap and knee-length traditional Gho robe, carrying a backpack, Bhutan’s king has walked through jungles infested with leeches and snakes, trekked mountains, and quarantined several times in a hotel in the capital.
For the last 14 months, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has been traveling by foot, car, and horse to remote hamlets to oversee measures to protect his tiny kingdom of 700,000 from the coronavirus outbreak. The impact of the 41-year-old king’s excursions is evident in a COVID-19 death toll of just one for the nation nestled between India and China in the Eastern Himalayas.
In recent weeks, the king walked for five days on a trail passing through elevations of up to 4,343 m to thank primary health workers in remote areas. A father of two boys, after every trip the king checks into a hotel in capital Thimphu to follow quarantine protocols and has been vaccinated once.
“Our king’s biggest fear is that if the pandemic spreads like a forest fire then our (nation) could be wiped out,” said a senior palace official.
“He has been to all high-risk border areas time and again to monitor every measure put in place and to ensure best practices are followed within limited resources,” said Rui Paulo de Jesus, the World Health Organization representative in Bhutan.
It’s worth noting here that, Bhutan, an ancient kingdom sealed off to foreigners until the 1970s, has just one doctor available for every 2,000 people. The borders of the scenic nation are now shut again and domestic lockdowns have been imposed in some areas, while screening and testing for COVID-19 have been stepped up.
Prime Minister Tshering has said Bhutan is looking to mix-and-match vaccine doses because after inoculating 90% of its eligible population with their first dose of the AstraZeneca (AZN.L) shot, the nation ran out of supplies. And the government is seeking other supplies to deal with the shortage as the deadline to administer the second dose after a gap of 12 weeks is approaching fast this month.