Learning to live with COVID-19 in Bhutan

Another unprecedented year has ended. And the pandemic is far from over. The emergence of omicron, a new highly transmissible variant shows that COVID-19 is here to stay, and we must learn to live with it.

This entails being agile, innovative, anticipatory, and adaptive so we can better respond to the crisis and come out stronger, greener, and more resilient. Over the past two years, UNDP has pivoted our focus to support Bhutan as it copes with COVID-19. In close partnership with the Royal Government and partners, in 2021, we intensified our efforts to advocate for innovative ways of doing things and took advantage of the COVID dividend and the policy space created to discuss, embrace, and experiment with alternative ideas.

Digital disruption was one of the key enablers we believed in. From introducing iCTGs — a mobile device for prenatal care — to piloting eLitigation for continued access to justice, we ensured uninterrupted and enhanced provision of essential services to those in remote communities despite movement restrictions and social-distancing requirements. We brought in experiences and lessons from other countries to ensure fast development of the Bhutan Vaccine System for smooth and efficient roll out of vaccines. The pandemic provided once in a life-time opportunity to drive digital transformation in close partnership with young digital entrepreneurs.

On the innovation front, we focused on public sector innovation to enhance the speed and quality of service delivery. We also introduced the use of behavioral insights techniques to improve waste segregation. These tools are necessary if we are to continue improving public services in the wake of a fast-shrinking fiscal space.

While fighting COVID-19, we made sure to keep the pressing issue of climate change in sight. Our five-segment Climate Series, in the lead up to COP26, shone a spotlight on Bhutan’s climate vulnerabilities and risks, and showcased climate and environmental leadership. The low-emission development strategies in four sectors provided valuable scientific base to formulate Bhutan’s raised climate ambitions through the Second Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Good progress was witnessed in promulgating climate-resilient farming practices and climate-proof irrigation schemes to build resilience of farming communities, while a new ecotourism project was kicked off to mainstream wildlife conservation into tourism. These efforts prepare the tourism sector for its strong come back.

During the pandemic, the global community decisively moved towards green technology and solutions, particularly renewables. Here in Bhutan, to drive green recovery and bolster efforts to diversify energy sources, we unleashed the potential of renewable energy by investing in Bhutan’s first grid-tied solar plant.

Youth unemployment kept rising and skills development and job creation for youth remained our top priority. Building on the past systems map exercise of the youth employment, we focused on assessing the needs for future skilling and demand creation to get young people ready for the fast-changing job market. The Digital Jobs Study and the Innovation Challenge, which directly followed, aimed at getting young people ready to be employed in the digital economy.

We also focused our efforts in helping Bhutan realize the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while leaving no one behind. Together with civil society organizations, we listened and responded to the needs of the most vulnerable and severely affected. A historic step was taken to make provisions for legal aid support to vulnerable women, who became subject to increasing reported cases of domestic violence. Training and seed funding were made available to support economic empowerment of persons with disabilities and home-based women workers, who lost livelihood due to the pandemic. We also intensified our advocacy efforts, together with CSOs, government institutions and UN agencies, to address the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence and mental health.

As we look ahead to 2022, which will inevitably be yet another challenging year, we remain deeply committed and prepared to respond to the call of Bhutan’s fast-evolving development needs and priorities. The implementation of the NDC to ensure Bhutan remains carbon neutral, job creation and skills development for youth in orange, green and digital sectors, and public sector innovation for anticipatory and agile governance will remain as the accelerated and scaled up efforts. We welcome opportunities to expand our partnership base and work very closely with every member of the Bhutanese society and international community towards a better future.

By Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP Bhutan

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