Tiny country's world-beating Covid vaccine achievement

Nick Whigham and AP
·3-min read

Perhaps Scott Morrison could give Lotay Tshering a call. 

The Prime Minister of Bhutan has had a decidedly easier time when it comes to rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine

While Australia's scheme has been slow and forced to ditch all targets, the tiny nation of Bhutan has emerged as the surprise leader of the pack in the global inoculation race. 

When plotted on a graph, the curve of Bhutan’s Covid-19 vaccination drive shoots upwards from the very first day, crossing Israel, the United States, Bahrain and other countries known for vaccinating their populations at a rapid rate.

Those countries took months to reach where they are, painstakingly strengthening their vaccination campaigns in the face of rising coronavirus cases. But the story of Bhutan’s vaccination campaign is nearly finished — just 16 days after it began.

A health worker administers a coronavirus vaccine to a Buddhist monk during the first day of vaccination in Bhutan on March 27. Source: Getty
A health worker administers a coronavirus vaccine to a Buddhist monk during the first day of vaccination in Bhutan on March 27. Source: Getty

The achievement – aided by such a small population – has nonetheless been praised around the world. 

Within a single week a world-beating 85 per cent of Bhutan’s adult population had received a first shot, The Economist gushed. 

Last week UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) praised the volunteers who "played a critical role in vaccinating half a million people against Covid-19 in just nine days." 

The tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between India and China has vaccinated nearly 93 per cent of its adult population since March 27. Overall, the country has vaccinated 62 per cent of its 800,000 people.

Its small population helped Bhutan move fast, but its success has also been attributed to its dedicated citizen volunteers, known as “desuups,” and established cold chain storage used during earlier vaccination drives.

Bhutan received its first 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from neighbouring India in January, but the shots were distributed beginning in late March to coincide with auspicious dates in Buddhist astrology.

The little nation shot up the Covid vaccine ranks in just a few days. Source: Oxford University
The little nation shot up the Covid vaccine ranks in just a few days. Source: Oxford University

The first dose was administered by and given to a woman born in the Year of the Monkey, accompanied by chants of Buddhist prayers.

“Let this small step of mine today help us all prevail through this illness,” the recipient, 30-year-old Ninda Dema, was quoted by the country’s Kuensel newspaper as saying.

US vaccinates more than 22 million people in one week

As of Tuesday, Australia had administered more than 1.23 million doses since its rollout began in late February, falling well short of the target of 4 million by the end of March.

According to the White House Covid-19 Data Director, Cyrus Shahpar, the US vaccinated more than 22 million people last week – more than the entire adult population of Australia. 

Dr Pandup Tshering, secretary to the Ministry of Health in Bhutan, said jabs were still being provided to those who could not get vaccinated during the campaign period and the country had enough doses to cover its entire population.

Bhutan has recorded 910 coronavirus infections and one death since the pandemic began.

The Asian nation has a mandatory 21-day quarantine for all people arriving in the country. All schools and educational institutions are open and are monitored for compliance with Covid-19 protocols, Tshering said.

Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. But the country has transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democratic, constitutional monarchy.

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