Bhutan curbs COVID-19 with compassion and ambition

H.E. Dechen Wangmo sitting behind her desk

"I commit to reach the unreached and serve as a voice for the voiceless," said H.E. Dechen Wangmo. (photo SNV / Tshechu Dorji) 

Bhutan's trailblazing Minister of Health has put the country’s success in curbing the spread of COVID-19 down to compassion and ambitious targets.

Her Excellency Dechen Wangmo was appointed the country’s first female Minister of Health, before being elected the first Bhutanese President of the World Health Assembly, in May 2021.

She said: “We often talk about different styles of leadership, and we don’t talk about compassionate leadership. Being able to understand people’s pain, every individual’s worry, every individual’s concern.

“I also believe in setting ambitious targets. Setting ambitious targets should be our normal approach.”

A World Health Organisation assessment found Bhutan is the only country in the South Asia region that has avoided disruptions to its routine health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minister Wangmo issued an executive order for the Ministry of Health, Water for Women partner SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, and UNICEF to develop a response to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Public spaces were identified high-risk areas, drawing crowds but having few handwashing and drinking facilities, which were also inaccessible to children and people with disabilities.

The response included designing, developing and installing 25 new facilities, with 77 tap points, in public spaces across 10 districts. The facilities are reachable for children, and wheelchair accessible.

Local governments received the facilities on the understanding soap would be made available at all times, and technicians were trained to operate and maintain the facilities.

One vendor said: “The handwashing facility installed at the vegetable market is a very good initiative. It is helpful for us and the customers. Before, it was very challenging to maintain hand hygiene and our hands looked very dirty. Now, we can wash our hands easily... Children also find it easy to use without our help.”

The COVID-19 response also included a public awareness campaign on proper handwashing techniques.

“Health is central to the development agenda,” said Minister Wangmo. “If health and well-being of the population is not taken care of, then I think no other developmental agendas can move forward."

H. E. Dechen Wangmo was speaking as one of 19 leaders interviewed for the Gender Transformative Leadership in WASH during the COVID-19 Pandemic research project, led by Water for Women partners SNV and the Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney.

You can watch the video here:

Water for Women partners with SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in the delivery of the Beyond the Finish Line - Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All project in Bhutan, to provide equitable, universal access to safely managed sanitation and hygiene for more than 275,000 people across eight districts.

Through Water for Women, Australia is investing AUD118.9m to deliver 33 WASH projects and research initiatives that aim to support 2.9 million people in 15 countries across South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific. Water for Women is the Australian government's flagship WASH program and is being delivered as part of Australia's aid program over five years, from 2018 to 2022.


Video: SNV Netherlands Development Organisation


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