Bhutan’s nationwide vaccination campaign began on March 27 with a woman born in the year of the Monkey.
On consulting the Central Monastic Body, the astrologers told the government that a woman born in the year of Monkey should be chosen as the first person to receive the vaccine.
The local governments then looked for women of that age to ensure nothing goes wrong with the campaign. Most of these women visited and prayed at the local temples, abodes of local deities, before receiving the vaccine. Most didn’t have any side-effects, a few experienced minor discomforts.
Their parents, relatives and friends lauded them for their decisions.
Consignments of the vaccine were received with prayer ceremonies and elaborate rituals to expel any negative energy.
On March 25, Kencho Lham received a call. The dzongkhag health officer offered her to be the first to take the vaccine.
Kencho Lham had returned from Kuwait in May due to the pandemic. “When I came here I felt safe. And when the free vaccine was announced, I was really looking forward to taking it.”
Dzongkhag officials spoke words of encouragement and gratitude.
“I did see a lot of people mentioning about the vaccine’s side effects but I didn’t experience any. I got a flu vaccine in the past, so I wasn’t really worried.”
Gasa dzongkhag received 2,490 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine on March 25.
“In other countries, people have to pay for the vaccine. Here, our king and the government are providing these for free. There’s no reason not to take it,” Kencho Lham said.
For Mongar residents, His Majesty The King’s presence at the inaugural event of Covid-19 vaccination was a blessing and a motivation.
Residents said they gained courage and confidence after hearing the news that His Majesty, who is on a Royal tour of the east, is with them. Five vaccination posts in the town saw long queues of old and young alike.
His Majesty visited the vaccination posts in the dzong and Mongar High School, two of the 112 posts in the dzongkhag.
Karma Pema Wangmo received the first Covid-19 vaccine in the presence of His Majesty at Mongar Dzong. She said that her initial inhibitions and anxiety subsided in presence of the His Majesty. “It was a proud moment and I feel blessed and grateful.”
A teacher and a Desuup, Karma Pema Wangmo said she volunteered to be the first woman. Nothing happened to her after the vaccination.
After hearing about His Majesty’s visit, residents said that many rushed to get the jab.
In Mongar, 10,497 of the 25,000 registered got vaccinated as of yesterday with 236 reported for minor adverse effect of immunization with fever and dizziness.
Without others remaining reluctant, Chimi Selden from Lhuentse and works as a senior technician with Bhutan Power Corporation Ltd volunteered.
In the wake of numerous reports concerning vaccine safety, she said she was intimidated to take the vaccine in the beginning.
Chimi Selden received the vaccine on Saturday at Dagapela hospital. She went to recite prayers at the nearby lhakhang after getting vaccinated. Except for a mild headache and pain in the joints, she had no other side-effects.
“I’ve also made calls to my friends, encouraging them to take the vaccine. Many of them were afraid,” she said.
A junior engineer at Wangdue dzongkhag, Ngawang Peday had initially hesitated but eventually accepted the offer to be the first person.
“My father didn’t say anything but mother was worried because she heard about the side-effects,” she said. With the help of her siblings, she convinced her mother. Her parents were also vaccinated on the first day.
“I did pray for the whole vaccination process in the dzongkhag to go well,” Ngawang Peday said. She didn’t experience any side effects.
On Saturday morning, Karma Yangchen was up excited and nervous.
For the 30-year-old mother, it was an emotional moment. Being a wife of a frontline worker, her family is vulnerable to diseases.
After the vaccine, the woman from Bikhar, Trashigang returned to her loom and resumed weaving.
“I was not trying to be famous. I volunteered in an effort to encourage those unsure about the vaccine,” she said. “The vaccine comes as a hope to end the pandemic.”
Karma said that she does not have any bad experience with vaccination before and she looks forward to receiving the next shot from the same centre.
Tshering Peldon from Baytshamang in Bumdeling got the first Covid-19 vaccine in Trashiyangtse. She knew it was a historic moment. “My family feels proud of me.”
Some villagers asked her if it was painful. “I convinced them that it is a safe vaccine and there is no need to be worry,” said the mother of two.
In the remote Sombaykha drungkhag, Haa, Kezang Wangmo, a farmer took the vaccine first.
With a limited population in the gewog, she was the only person aged 30.
Despite all the rumour about the vaccine, she volunteered. She said: “I have faith and confidence in my King and the Prime Minister.”
After taking the jab, Kezang Wangmo stayed until 2 p.m; at the BHU, waiting for her friends and husband to get their jab. She reached home at around 4.30pm. She milked her cows, fed the cattle and took a nap as she experienced a mild headache.
She woke up again at 10pm to cook for the family. Yesterday, while talking to Kuensel over the phone, she was collecting fodder.
Tenzin Wangmo, 30, the legal officer in Pemagatshel dzongkhag, said: “I was happy when I was chosen as the first person to get vaccinated in the dzongkhag.”
She chanted prayers and recited Sangay Menlha before getting the jab.
She said that none in her family tested positive for Covid-19.
“Considering the positive cases, two lockdowns and expenditure invested by the government to keep us safe, I took the vaccine,” Tenzin Wangmo said.
Sangay Zangmo, 30, a policewoman, was a little worried. “But I got confidence after listening to the prime minister.”
“It is better to get vaccinated if you are eligible.”
She decided to get vaccinated because as a frontline worker at the border there was a higher risk of getting infected with Covid-19. “I felt lethargic and slept for about four hours after returning home. I had a peaceful sleep that night.”
Sangay Wangmo from Bangkha under Dogar gewog in Paro was the first to receive Covishield at Lagay outreach clinic on Saturday.
Answering her silent prayers, tshogpa Dorji asked her if she would take the first shot Friday evening. Sangay Wangmo took her shot at 10.28am. After the vaccine, she returned home, ate her lunch and went into the field to sow seeds.
“It is like the regular birth control shot I take,” she said.
Many neighbours called to check if she was okay.
While far-flung villages such as Bangkha were considered safe due to the minimum crowd, she said it was essential to vaccinate for safety.
“If the vaccine doesn’t benefit the population, the government will never import them,” she said.
“We have to consider how His Majesty The King is risking his life to protect us. Our only contribution as a responsible citizen is to take the shot.”
At 9.20am in Nganglam, Sangay Choden stood in front of more than 70 truck drivers in Dungsam Cement Corporation Ltd hall.
“I was not scared of the vaccine but nervous when people started gathering around me,” said Sangay Choden, a grocer adjacent to the DCCL colony.
Sangay Choden volunteered to be the first recipient immediately after she learnt officials were looking for a female born in the Monkey year. Her parents were excited to hear that she was chosen to mark the historic event.
Sangay said: “Since the vaccine is critical in keeping us safe from Covid-19, I was waiting for this moment and today, I am extremely happy to get it.”
Following the vaccination, Sangay walks uphill to her shop, a 10-minute walk. As soon as she was home, she enters the kitchen to prepare some Koka noodles. Six customers have been waiting for a meal.
After she serves them, she prepares doma for another group of men with stained lips and red teeth.
“Apart from a slight pinch from the injection, I didn’t feel anything,” says Sangay.
None of those 151 truck drivers who vaccinated after Sangay Choden have reported having any side effects.
Spread across three gewogs in Nganglam, 12 centres and 14 posts have been set up to vaccinate 3,571 registered people according to the health officials in Nganglam.
Thinley Choden, the administrative officer of Tsimalakha hospital was only worried about her work when she accepted to be the first to receive the vaccine.
“But my friends assured everything will be taken care of,” she said.
After taking the jab, Thinley Choden rested for 40 minutes and returned to work. It was only after 3pm she felt weak and left for home to take rest following doctors’ advice. “I felt a little tired and my joints ached.”
A day after the jab, yesterday, Thinley Choden was feeling better but was still weak to return to duty.
She got the jab from her close friend, another 30-year-old Kunzang Choden, a pharmacy technician at the hospital.
In Phuentsholing thromde, a regional transport officer with RSTA, Tila M Sharma, was at the forefront to get the vaccine.
“It is my primary responsibility to protect myself and my community from getting and spreading the virus,” she said. “I am glad and privileged.”
“We are all aware, how His Majesty The King has been leading us in this fight against the invisible enemy at the forefront, and thus my decision to take the vaccine is my contribution in the fight.”
Tila M Sharma urged all the eligible Bhutanese to come forward and take the vaccine. After the vaccine, she felt normal.
“When I took the jab, I had a little fear,” the teacher of Samtse LSS, Sonam Pem said, adding that it was natural being a mother of a three-year-old.
Asked why she took the vaccine, she said: “We all have to vaccinate anyway. So I thought it was a good opportunity.”
Unlike many others who complained of side effects, Sonam Pem said she didn’t feel anything. “In other countries, there are people who want to get vaccinated but are not getting the opportunity. But in Bhutan, we are given vaccination for free.”
Meanwhile, a 52-year-old monk, Pelden Dorji was given two doses of the vaccine in Tashichholing, Samtse.
Originally from Trongsa, he had come to meet his sister and other relatives at Tashichholing.
After completing half an hour of observation, the desuup on duty called him to report to the health vaccination team to help him go home. In the meantime, he sat on the chair meant for those in the queue to receive the vaccine and got another shot. He misunderstood and heard that he has to get two doses.
He was released after six hours of observation. He was closely monitored by the doctor on duty. He is normal and didn’t have side effects.
Kelzang Choden, a desuup and a Gelephu thromde employee, said she was mentally prepared for the day.
“I was excited and also nervous at the same time. I was comfortable with vaccination always and it helped me stay calm,” said Kelzang Choden.
“My sister was delighted when I told her that I was the first to receive the vaccine in Sarpang,” she said.
More than 6,000 people across 45 vaccination centres were vaccinated that day. Health officials faced challenges in registering and pre-screening using the online system, as the system faced some glitches.
More than 90 percent of the 24,000 people from Sarpang who registered for the vaccination said they will go for the jab.
Gyem Lham, an ICT Officer of Lhuentse dzongkhag was the first person to receive the Covid-19 jab at Namdroling monastery in Lhuentse.
“This Covid-19 pandemic has affected our lives. I see restrictions everywhere. I want to have the life that I was used to before this pandemic and this vaccine gives me hope,” she said.
“Moreover, the vaccine is blessed by His Holiness The Je Khenpo.”
Norbu Dema, a teacher at Tshangkha central school was vaccinated at Chendepji pry school vaccination post to begin the vaccination campaign in the dzongkhag.
Norbu Dema from Bumdeling, Tashiyangtse said that she was aware of the side effects.
“I was not at all scared of the side effects because the benefits of having it far outweigh the side effects,” she said.
Norbu Dema expressed gratitude to His Majesty The King and the government for successfully planning and executing the vaccination rollout programme.
A health official went around town looking for a 30-year-old woman. Bagawati Pulami, a shopkeeper, volunteered. “I felt happy and lucky at the same time.”
Most importantly, she said it was felt a responsibility for her as a shopkeeper to get vaccinated in order to prevent the virus from spreading to customers.
“Being in the shop, I need to interact with different people from different places every day. If I don’t take the vaccine, it could cost others,” she said.
“I was fine on the day I received the vaccine and could go to my shop,” she said.
A monk born in the Dragon year, Phub Tshering was the first to initiate the vaccination drive in Punakha.
Dzongkhag health officer Namgay Dawa said that among monks, astrologers said it was auspicious to start vaccination with a male born in the Dragon year.
Punakha dzongkhag’s decision was also because the vaccine post set near the dzong was targeted for the members of the Zhung Dratshang and about 335 monks inside the dzong.
Zhung Dratshang’s administration officer Sherab Tharchen said that the dratshang didn’t have women.
So Phub Tshering volunteered. “If I can contribute in something significant like this, I’m happy.”
Phub Tshering and monks recited the Sangay Menlha prayers before the event. Past 10am, Phub Tshering received his dose.
He informed his parents, who are farmers, only after the event fearing they would be worried. But when he informed them later they were proud of him.
“I think there is nothing to fear,” Phub Tshering said.
Kuensel Reporters and Tenzin Namgyel (former Kuensel Chief Reporter) in Nganglam