For months, Bhutan sat on hundreds of thousands of doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, waiting for the stars to align.
Despite receiving a supply of vaccines in January, the small Himalayan kingdom didn’t begin immunizing its population until March 27, a date that was selected through astrological consultations with Buddhist monks.
According to the ministry of health, But once that auspicious date arrived, Bhutan made up for the lost time. In less than two weeks, the country administered first doses to more than 93 per cent of eligible adults.
Bhutan has delivered initial vaccine doses to a larger share of its population than any other nation besides Seychelles, and rapidly outpaced wealthy nations including Israel and the United Kingdom that have been carrying out aggressive vaccination campaigns for months. Like many other leaders in the race, it’s benefited from its small size: With only slightly less land area than Switzerland, it has less than a tenth of the people.
Bhutan has also benefited from vaccine diplomacy: India, it is neighbour to the south, has been providing free doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured in India as Covishield, in a move that analysts say is intended to counter the growing influence of Bhutan’s other powerful neighbour, China.
The first gift of 150,000 doses arrived in January, followed by additional batches, but the office of Bhutan’s prime minister, Lotay Tshering, said in a statement that no one would be getting their shot just yet because the government deemed it “important we roll out the nationwide vaccination on an auspicious date.” Zhung Dratshang, a panel of Buddhist monks that oversees the official state religion, had warned that an inauspicious month would fall between February 14 and March 13. “We will wait until the period is over,” the prime minister’s office concluded.
By April 8, more than 472,000 people ranging in age from 18 to 104 had been vaccinated, according to Bhutan’s Ministry of Health. Officials are now prevailing on the few remaining holdouts to get their shots, noting that King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has indicated that he will not get vaccinated until everyone in the country does.