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Focus on Happiness Helps Bhutan Combat the Pandemic

February 22, 2021


As odd as it might seem, a small Buddhist kingdom located on the eastern edge of the Himalayas has emerged from the COVID-19 crisis as one of the most successful nations in managing the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. Officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan, it is a landlocked country with over three-quarters of million people. It is bordered by China to the north and India to its south. Toward China are many mountainous passes through the Himalayas and to the south are subtropical deep valleys; both combine to allow for four distinct seasons each year. The same geographic features that force many inhabitants to live in tribal isolation, also make Bhutan one of the purest spots on earth for travelers to enjoy its unique architecture, massive fortresses, clear glacial waterways, and government-protected wildernesses. From snow-covered peaks above 20,000 feet to its dense subtropical vegetation and bamboo jungles, Bhutan affords its visitors a much different view of the world.

Sovereign Concept for Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy in which the sovereign exercise authority in accordance with a prescribed legal framework (either written or unwritten) much like Monaco or Bahrain. The kingdom is linguistically rich with over nineteen dialects of Dzongkha, which is the national language spoken throughout the country. Since Bhutan is a relatively poor nation economically, many residents are polyglots who have learned to communicate with tourists in English (also taught in schools) and Hindi, which comes from the influence of Indian cinema. Unlike many societies in other parts of the world, Bhutanese do not measure wealth in terms of money but have a collective desire for Gross National Happiness (GNH). In Bhutan, the goal is to live a trouble-free and blissful life that is not restricted to measuring a nation’s success in terms of economics. In fact, the concept of GNH was presented to the United Nations as a paradigm for economic development where any government grappling with Western capitalism or today’s global corporate world has an alternative. There are even World Happiness Summits and the U.N. declared March 20 as International Happiness Day as well as major Western universities now offer courses in happiness.

Preparedness, Prevention and Protection

It may have been the kingdom’s commitment to GNH that helped the people of Bhutan to trust in their government and the Bhutanese government to better communicate with the general public. Nonetheless, this unity allowed Bhutan to address the crisis caused by the deadly coronavirus in a better way than many affluent and technologically advanced nations. Since the first case of coronavirus was identified in a 76-year-old American tourist last March, only one person has died from the novel virus compared to nearly 2.5 million deaths worldwide. With just over 300 doctors in the kingdom, and only one trained in critical care, the nation would have seemed ill prepared to deal with a highly contagious virus. Fortunately, Bhutan’s prime minister, health minister, and foreign minister are doctors and health experts who are referred to as “the healthy government”.

According to a recent CNN report by Fareed Zakaria, the government’s fast actions could be used as a blueprint for Preparedness, Prevention and Protection. The country had worked with officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) a year earlier to run a simulation exercise for responding to a traveler entering Bhutan with a deadly virus. The lessons learned included strong leadership guidelines and a stringent public health response that emphasized compassion and unity. So, when the virus appeared, early actions included closing borders, screening visitors, implementing local lockdowns, and enforcing a 21-day quarantine policy. With very limited resources, officials were forced to rely on a National Response Plan that included proactive steps like mask wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing. Moreover, this belief in GNH helps to balance Bhutan’s cultural values with its economic development and environmental consciousness making this tiny nation a unique destination for future travelers.

After all, where else can you speak multiple dialects of Dzongkha and English over a hot bowl of Ema Datshi?

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