The COVID-19 success story you never knew about
It has been about a year since the world entered a normal that is no longer new. The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended the globe in so many ways, with terrible impacts not just for public health, but also economic growth and societal interactions. Unemployment has soared, while lockdowns have restricted in-person communications in ways not seen in decades.
It would be easy to focus on the bad news stories that have emerged from the pandemic. Here, I don’t refer only to the millions of people who have caught the virus and the more than 2 million who have perished as a result. I refer also to the pandemic’s unfortunate tendency to polarize, rather than unite. Who could have predicted that in America the decision whether to wear a mask would become so politicized? And who could have predicted that the world, faced with one of its most deadly shared threats in decades, would be unable to mount an effective coordinated response — in great part because of a worsening spat between America and China, the world’s two most powerful players?
This is why it’s instructive to highlight pandemic success stories. In Asia alone, these include New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam. The full answer to the basic question of “Why did some countries handle the pandemic better than others” won’t be known for quite some time. But there do appear to be several key factors at play with the COVID-19 success story states: Swift and effective government action, clear and consistent communication from authorities, and public trust in political leaders and government institutions.
This is what makes one of the less-publicized COVID-19 success stories all the more remarkable: The small, poor nation of Bhutan. It has only 337 physicians for a population of 770,000 and it borders two countries — China and India — that were hit hard by the pandemic. And yet Bhutan has only had one pandemic death.
Bhutan’s success can be attributed to the factors of effective policies, good communication and strong trust highlighted above. But there is also a more unique factor at play, according to the few analyses — including a recent detailed report in The Atlantic by science journalist Madeline Drexler — into the Bhutan case: A spirit of compassion and altruism that reflects the country’s Gross National Happiness Index, a concept that considers non-economic components of well-being, including health, as essential to sustainable development. In effect, for the country to succeed, its population must be happy and healthy.
The degree to which the principles of Gross National Happiness have been deployed to help Bhutan fight the pandemic is remarkable.
This term, coined nearly 50 years ago by the country’s fourth king, has often been regarded overseas as a cute abstraction. It sounds quirky and appealing, but not necessarily something that will produce tangible and meaningful impacts.
And yet, as documented by Drexler, the degree to which the principles of Gross National Happiness have been deployed to help Bhutan fight the pandemic is remarkable. The king of Bhutan personally launched a $19 million relief campaign targeting thousands of citizens affected by the pandemic. The government has sent care packages, complete with hand sanitizer and vitamins, to the elderly. People joined new corps of volunteers to assist. Parliamentarians gave up their salaries for the relief effort and citizens delivered food to the legislators while they worked through the night. The prime and health ministers slept in their offices for weeks during a lockdown. Hotel owners transformed their facilities into quarantine facilities. Keep in mind that this giving has taken place in a nation with a per capita gross domestic product of $3,400.
To be sure, such magnanimity is seen in communities across the world. There are stories galore of doctors working tirelessly in overstretched hospitals and of entire neighborhoods gathering food and medical supplies for COVID-19 patients and their families.
But for an entire country to mobilize and transform itself into one large charity is highly unusual. It is an especially jarring site in today’s world, where toxic nationalism and hyperpartisanship have often pitted people against each other rather than bring them closer together. But, in Bhutan, it is second nature. “I believe it is this very closeness that has kept us together,” Bhutanese journalist Namgay Zam told Drexler. “I don’t think any other country can say that leaders and ordinary people enjoy such mutual trust. This is the main reason for Bhutan’s success.”
Bhutan’s selflessness and togetherness represent the epitome of pandemic resilience. As Rui Paulo de Jesus, a World Health Organization worker in Bhutan, put it to Drexler, it’s not just Bhutan’s health sector that protects health. It’s also “things that we don’t count normally, like your social capital and the willingness of society to come together for the common good.”
Perhaps, if more countries followed Bhutan’s lead and espoused the ideals of Gross National Happiness, the last year wouldn’t have been quite as deadly as it was.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman