The Bank responded promptly to the COVID-19 pandemic, which spread across the world and quickly reached the small landlocked country of Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. Given the uncertainty of health supplies amid the global crisis and the risk that the Buddhist kingdom’s healthcare facilities could be overstretched, the Bank worked quickly with government counterparts to prepare a $5 million assistance project. The aim was to ensure there were sufficient properly trained medical personnel and enough medical supplies and equipment and testing kits to protect the 770,000 population and a robust awareness campaign to make sure officials and the public understood the dangers and knew how to respond.
The project, which adhered to international best practice, was designed to provide goods, equipment, drugs and consumables to support testing, contact tracing, reporting and recording of COVID-19 infections; strengthen health systems at central and district levels to enable the necessary quarantining and treatment; and set up rigorous community engagement to maximize the use of public health measures and minimize risks of infection. As part of the emergency response component of the project, surveillance programs were put in place in all 20 districts through Case Investigation and Contact Tracing (CICT) teams overseen by the Ministry of Health. Key personnel were trained in infection prevention, control and disease management.
The Bank developed an innovative financing model by establishing a Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility which was activated during the COVID-19 pandemic. It allocated $1 million in grant resources to the government as part of the Bhutan Development Policy operation with a catastrophe drawdown option (Cat-DDO) that focuses on health. Funds were immediately transferred to support the government's rapid response and relief efforts, following triggering of the Cat-DDO. One of the policy reform areas under the Cat-DDO is to strengthen Bhutan’s institutional and technical capacity for emergency preparedness and response.