On July 12, hope appeared on the horizon as a plane chartered by UNICEF flew over the Himalayan Mountains, headed for the landing strip at the airport in Paro, a town in Bhutan's western region. On board were 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines donated by the U.S. government through the COVAX Facility. Those doses and subsequent shipments from China, Denmark, India, Bulgaria and Croatia helped Bhutan achieve the important milestone celebrated at the end of July: 90 percent of all those eligible are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The doses allowed Bhutan to follow up on its successful spring campaign to vaccinate all eligible people over age 18 against COVID-19. According to the nation's Ministry of Health, as of April 27, the country had vaccinated 480,181 people — most of the nation's adults. With the backing of everyone from Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to local community leaders, the effort was a strong start to immunize the entire nation.
The first round of shots came from India, which then had to stop exports to cope with its own deadly second wave of cases. As vaccine supplies dwindled, Bhutan issued a call for help — and other nations, not just the U.S., responded.
Denmark, Croatia, Bulgaria and a few other countries donated vaccines, enabling Bhutan to restart its COVID-19 vaccination campaign just in time: the tiny Himalayan nation shares a border with India to its south, east and west, a dangerous proximity government officials connected with a surge in COVID-19 infections with the Delta variant, and the deadline for administering the second dose was fast approaching.
“Vaccines are certainly a most scarce commodity at this time, so we are grateful to have so much support from the international community,” said Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering. “We are fortunate that Bhutan evokes tremendous goodwill and affection the world over. We are blessed with genuine friends who have been unwavering in their help and support for our country.”
In addition to supporting the Royal Government of Bhutan in fast tracking vaccine shipments through COVAX, UNICEF has also been providing operational support and strengthening the nation's cold chain system so that the vaccines can be safely stored.
Top photo: In March 2021, at the beginning of Bhutan’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a volunteer checks the temperature of a resident before she enters a vaccination site at a primary school in Dagana. © UNICEF Bhutan/2021/Tshering