Last month, the threat of the pandemic became very real for Bhutan when the first COVID-19 cases were detected outside the quarantine facilities. It was extremely worrying to find several positive cases, in more than one place. Those who contracted the virus and their loved ones have suffered a great deal of anxiety.
A nationwide lockdown was introduced with immediate effect to contain the virus. The entire population had to stay home for weeks, stopping work, losing income, and running out of food and essentials. Yet, our people fully understood the magnitude of the threat we face, and willingly endured the discomfort and hardship, extending their wholehearted support to the government. I thank our people for being concerned about the collective good and showing exceptional forbearance and resilience.
We closed our international borders in March. But, in the following months, there has been no sign that the COVID-19 pandemic will end. It has continued to spread; bringing illness, death, and distress to so many people around the world. In comparison, we were able to lead reasonably normal lives in Bhutan with some disruptions caused by just a few cases. The government, led by the Prime Minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering, has worked tirelessly over the past six months. Many public servants have put in long hours of work. Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo, the health ministry– secretary, doctors, nurses, technicians, and other health workers – have been serving without even a day’s rest. The armed forces – RBA, RBP and RBG – supported by Desuups and numerous other volunteers, have served with inexhaustible strength and energy. Most importantly, their work has been strengthened by the unwavering sense of civic duty of the people. All these efforts have culminated in our success so far.
What we do next is critical. The road ahead will be arduous. The enemy that we are confronting is invisible. But we cannot afford to allow COVID-19 to spread unchecked among the population. It is a new virus and, therefore, still unpredictable. Our priority will always be the health and wellbeing of our people. We will continue to do everything to ensure that lives are not put at risk.
As we battle the pandemic, we need to be aware that it will not disappear in a matter of months – we have to brace ourselves to deal with the impact of the pandemic for the next year or two. We need a cure or a vaccine to see an end to COVID-19. There will undoubtedly be a vaccine, but it will take some time before it is ready, and some more time before it becomes widely accessible. All our planning, at both the individual and national levels, must be based on this fact.
The pandemic and its ramifications have posed some debilitating challenges. Education has been interrupted this year. The national development process, economic activity, and the everyday lives of the people have been disrupted. When I look ahead, I see a period that will be fraught with difficulties for our people.
At the same time, however, I am confident that we will overcome this. All our national resources, accumulated over the years through the hard work of our Kings and ancestors, our national assets, the collective capability of our institutions, the knowledge and experience of our public servants, and the dedication and stamina of our people, are being utilised today.
Indeed, an enormous responsibility faces us all – the King, the government, and the people. As in the past, if we think and act as one, and exert our concerted efforts, we will surely overcome every obstacle and prevail against all odds.
Although we were confronted by unforeseen challenges this year, everyone has been outstanding in performing their services. We have come together and made sure that the national machinery is functioning well. This was possible because of the immense love and dedication that our people have for our country. Our commitment to the wellbeing of our fellow Bhutanese was clearly evident in the hard work, and what we have accomplished in the past six months.
Moving forward, to further build on our achievements, we must now muster the active involvement and support of our youth. Demographically, we have a large proportion of young people who can make a significant difference if given the opportunity. The youth of Bhutan embody vigour and energy, and they are ready to serve without fear or hesitation when needed. I am always profoundly heartened when I hear their aspirations and see their enthusiasm.
During such times, our most crucial national endeavour is to ensure the continued wellbeing of our people. One major challenge we face today is the shortage of workforce. Understandably, expatriate workers wish to return to their homes during the pandemic, and many have already left. It is up to Bhutanese citizens, therefore, to step in and serve wherever there are shortfalls. In a sense, this is a timely opportunity. At a time when our youth are ready to serve, we can translate this prospect into reality for the long-term benefit of the nation, and achieve the extraordinary.
When we place such a mandate on our youth, we have to be, first of all, clear about precisely what we expect. Secondly, the task that we give them should be timeless and of such national importance that it will inspire and motivate them. And finally, what we ask of them must be pragmatic and achievable given the limitations of the current situation.
For example, Bhutan has abundant water resources compared with most of the countries in the world. Yet, there is no water in many places where it is needed, leaving large tracts of productive land fallow. Water is also a cause of conflict between communities and a predicament for rural and urban settlements alike. Our food import in the past year was over Nu. 7 billion while about 78,000 acres of arable land remained fallow.
An estimated half of the Bhutanese population is engaged in the agriculture sector. If with a well-designed programme, our youth were engaged in building a robust water management infrastructure, it would be of long term benefit to the country. While global conflicts and wars will be fought over access to water, if we can solve this problem once and for all in Bhutan, it will be a truly noble accomplishment. This would also ensure food security, an essential aspect of our overall national goal of self-reliance. What the youth of Bhutan achieves over a year or two during the COVID-19 pandemic, will remain as a mark of triumph– an invaluable asset and a lasting legacy for future generations.
As we grapple with this pandemic today, our religious institutions continue to supplicate the blessings of our Guardian Deities, and the government will not relax in its efforts to contain the threat. Our institutions, armed forces, Desuups, public servants, and volunteers will continue to serve the nation. The elderly will remain safe, and the people thoroughly conscientious.
We look to the youth of Bhutan to come forward – in this hour of need – so that, beyond overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19, we build a stronger nation.
During this pandemic, my only priority is the wellbeing and happiness of our people, including those living abroad. With the blessings and protection of our Guardian Deities, we will all remain safe. And, as I always say, if our people stay diligent and committed, united in purpose and spirit, all will be well.