Have we failed?

August 19, 2020

One of my former students, who works in Immigration in Phuntsholing, and a front liner, dropped a tearful voice message the day before. He sounded devastated and resigned that the virus has entered Bhutan despite the best efforts. He said that he even risked his life on many occasions patrolling the jungles at night – forget about the heat, dust, hunger and other inconveniences. And now this!

As his former guru (actually a guru is always a guru), I am proud that he shouldered his duty with a great sense of responsibility – and is also ready to take the blame for the collective “failure”. Like him, I am sure there are thousands at the front line who are getting this uneasy feeling of having failed. So, let me share to them what I shared with him. Hopefully it makes you feel better. 

The short answer: You have not failed. No one has failed.

And for the long answer. Yes, the virus has entered the country. Meaning the much-dreaded local transmission has happened – putting everyone to a standstill. Yes, this is unfortunate because it puts a load on everything from governance to public health to education to economy to social relations. However, as much as we all did everything, we also knew all along that it was just a matter of “when” and never a question of “if”. While the mission was to keep out the virus, it was a mission impossible, from all angles.

I don’t know about others but I feel that your have not failed. We have not failed. Instead our leaders and our front liners have managed to keep out the virus (meaning local transmission) for a good seven months. This is a World record. And time, any epidemiologist will tell you, is the most precious commodity in a pandemic. Even the “greatest” nations on Earth have tried and they failed even before us. The US even blundered with the lead time it had, while we have made the best possible use. And for this, each and every person out there should be proud. Seven months! 

No country can prevent a global pandemic. But every country can prepare if we get time. In this seven month we got this precious time, where we managed to stock up our food, medicines, fuels and essential goods, which should now carry us through for some time. We also grew vegetable more than we ever did in recent memory. And thousands of Desuups were trained and are now providing a priceless service to the nation. Most importantly, our health system had time to prepare. Over a billion worth of medical supplies have come in. We also have one of the highest testing rates in the world. A sign of success and not a sign of failure. 

When this thing is all over, I can bet that the way our medical system dealt with this menace, the manner in which how our King and government placed greater priority on life rather than money, would become a text book manual for countries to deal with pandemics in future. In fact, today as we go through the lockdown, our tantrums are mainly directed at food supplies and logistics, which I am sure will improve. Although, to quote a line from the film, Seven Samurai: Why to worry about the bread, when your head is about to fall? Unquote. Still.

As we move into the second week of the lockdown, my one concern is that people living in crammed apartments (some with their pet dogs) may go into depression, domestic violence or painful divorces. I also hope that our people at the frontline don’t get burnt-out or lose their focus, energy or enthusiasm. Working in a high-stress environment over an extended period can take its toll. Those of us sitting in our cosy homes, and those who can, should do everything to support our front liners in every possible way. 

We may have lost the battle to keep the virus out, but we will win the war to eliminate it – or at least break the chain of infection. We will win because, first, genuine care, concerns and compassion have enveloped us all. People who have lost their jobs are getting a stipend. Families who can’t afford are given free vegetable. Voluntary donations and contributions to the State have hit historic record. Even stray dogs are fed and are not left behind. 

Second, there is rock-solid unity and teamwork like never before – in former ministers working as Desuup volunteers, in royal prince and princesses in Orange uniform helping to patrol the streets, in government secretaries and directors distributing the supplies; and above all, our Prime Minister who is ready to listen and adopt the traditional Bhutanese what-we-don’t-have-we-borrow and what-I-don’t-know-I-will-ask approach. Of course, not to mention our King who is the epitome of service before self – and care for all Sentient Beings. 

And third, we will win because we have social capital. Studies from other countries have suggested that in places where there is strong social capital, the country does well (Example – Italy, New Zealand and South Korea). Where there are divisions and individualism, there are deaths (Brazil, US). 

So, no! We have not failed. The fight is not over. And we are just warming up. 😎😎😎

My last text message to my student was: “You have done your best. Thank you. Now we are all front liners.” 

In this war there are no front liners or back-benchers.

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