From UBC Wiki
Bhutan Map
[1]Map of Bhutan

Co-authored introduction By Ruonan, Brian, Sarah, Akhila, Tatiana, Meral, Trevor

Bhutan, also known as the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a country located in the region of South Asia. It shares geographical borders with India, China, and Nepal, and its capital city is Thimphu. Bhutan's national language is Dzongkha, but various other languages are also spoken within the country.[2] During the COVID-19 situation, Bhutan was challenged in unique ways relating to the areas of agriculture, indigenous relations, government structure, gender equality, religion, caste and nationalism.

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted indigenous communities in South Asia; the case of Bhutan is no exception. The Government of Bhutan's relations with indigenous peoples during the pandemic could be showing a change in the relations between them and the state. Government response during COVID-19 will also be looked at as it has played a key role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. To explore this theme, we will look at how Bhutan's government structure and policies enabled their timely and effective response. We will also examine the influence of religion in the government, and how past ethnic cleansing may cause discrimination towards minority members during the crisis. Bhutan's agriculture sector has also been affected. The pandemic allowed the Agriculture sector of Bhutan to gain the attention of the government. Agricultural workers were impacted by the pandemic and their problems were not ignored by the Bhutanese and its government. Another group that was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic was women in Bhutan, who experienced significant economic and employment challenges. There was an increase in gender-based violence, specifically toward women, which was largely the result of Bhutanese individuals spending more time within their homes due to the pandemic. Finally, we will explore how Bhutan's response to COVID-19 that accredited towards its success in successfully battling the pandemic is the tradition and heritage in which its community heavily relies on. Through an analyzation of the traditional values held by the community, one can see the large part this played in Bhutan's successful response to the pandemic as well as their success in battling previous pandemics.

On August 11, 2020, Bhutan publicized plans for the immediate implementation of a national lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19.[3]

Water and Change in Indigenous Relations

Most of the Bodo people live in the “Tamulpur sub-division of Baksa district along Indo-Bhutan border [in the Indian state of Assam]."[4] The Bodo people have historically relied on the Kalanadi river's water for their agricultural activities which is not only their food source, but also a source of revenue.[5] Bhutan since the 1950s has allowed the Bodo people to “enter [into the Bhutanese town of] Samdrup Jonkhar...and channelize the irrigation channel to carry water of [the transboundary] Kalanadi river to the paddy fields on the Indian side of the district.”[6] As part of the agreement with Bhutan, the Bodo people also oversees a “community-managed irrigation system called Dong-Jamphai” to prevent it from getting damaged from monsoons.[7] The process works as such, water flows into the “main dong channel” which is diverted to smaller ones known as “subsidiary channels.”[7] From thereon, water circulates “into jamphai, or field channels that supply water to the farms.”[7]

But the COVID-19 crisis forced Bhutan closed its borders which prevented the Bodo from "[repairing] the [transboundary Kalanadi river's] irrigation channels."[7] Although the Bhutanese government took up the task themselves to repair the "irrigation channels," gossip in early June 2020 claimed that "Bhutan had [purposely] blocked the flow of water from the transboundary Kalanadi river to [the] irrigation channels."[7] In response, the Bodo farmers blocked the “Rongia-Bhutan connecting road for several hours” hoping to pressure the Indian government into addressing this issue.[8] To address the issue, the Bhutanese government sent pictures showing that they were repairing the dam and stated progress was slow “due to heavy rains.”[7] The chief secretary of Assam then posted it on twitter to reassure the protesters there was no foul play.[6] Had the issue not been addressed, the agitation would have gone worse, for rumors could easily lead to violence.[9] If false information was not disproved, people would take matters onto their own hands, for they would believe “[the situation was] both out of control and uncontrollable [by their government].”[9]

This incident which happened as a result of COVID-19 reveals a new chapter in indigenous relations as Bhutan is leading by example in listening to the concerns of South Asian indigenous people rather than ignoring them.

Change for the Better in indigenous relations

Since Bhutan did listen and work with the Bodo people, it indicates South Asian governments may be beginning to change their ways of dealing with South Asian indigenous people.

To show how the COVID-19 circumstance may be sparking the change in altering South Asian nations' attitude towards South Asian indigenous people, Bhutan’s response will be contrasted with Nepal’s response towards the indigenous Tamang people in the wake of the 2015 earthquakes to show the difference.[10] The Nepalese government marginalized the Tamang people by ignoring corruption in the country’s northern central region with a Tamang majority as preceding regimes in Nepal have done before.[10] The reason Nepal neglected the Tamang people is because the Tamang people have had a “history of exploitation and exclusion” by the Nepalese government and their predecessors.[10] When Nepal was occupied by the Shah dynasty, the ruler of the kingdom “rewarded [his] loyal retainers with land grants that turned the indigenous cultivators into second-class tenant-farmers.”[10] This pattern of taking away the land which had originally belonged to the Tamang people to economically marginalize them in order to rule them continued onward to present day.[10] The pattern works as such, the laborers are classified as kam garnu, “[those who] do work” while the elites are “[those who] eat jagir,” meaning they do nothing but live off the fruits of the laborers.[10] This belief continues to persist today and hence resources sent to the Tamang people are usually taken by corrupted officials.[10] This contrast between how Nepal handled its indigenous relations in 2015 and Bhutan in 2020 shows relations with South Asian indigenous groups may be improving indirectly due to COVID-19. Hence, this episode between Bhutan and the Bodo indigenous people could be viewed as a positive change in South Asian indigenous relations.

In summary, this incident caused by COVID-19 shows South Asian governments may be starting to acknowledge and cooperate with indigenous people.

Government Structure and Policies - Ruonan

Bhutan’s success in its battle with COVID can be largely attributed to their quick and decisive actions. During the early stages of the pandemic, Bhutan closed its borders to tourists, shut down schools, issued work from home and social distancing orders, and added a policy to have businesses shut down by 7 pm. The government put together a National Preparedness and Response Plan and emergency committee in late February and kept citizens updated on the virus through press briefings. To understand how the country was able to effectively contain the pandemic with only a total of 133 confirmed cases and 0 deaths, we will be analyzing the structure of Bhutan’s government and its policies.

Lotay Tshering
[11]Prime Minister of Bhutan Lotay Tshering (2018)

Government Structure

The government of Bhutan is a constitutional Monarchy with executive powers held by a council of ministers led by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. Both the prime minister and the health minister played a key role in making timely and decisive actions as they were “both public health officials before entering politics.”[12] As Jesus, the World Health Organization's Bhutan representative says, “The big advantage is that the decision-makers understand the general principles of emergency preparedness and disease outbreak response, comprehend the technical guidance from the WHO and access scientific literature to guide decision-making.”[13] Due to the evidence-based, scientific approach to battling COVID, the government solidified trust in the public which allowed for cohesive, timely action. This result can be contrasted with the sentiments expressed in the article Situating the Earthquake in the Politics of Feudal Bureaucracy where “citizens of Nepal feel alienated from state structures.”[14] Despite feeling a “sense of helplessness and frustration”[14] after a devastating earthquake, Nepal’s citizens were reluctant to engage with the state because of a lack of trust. To examine Bhutan’s success, it is imperative to also understand the ways they brought about public trust in Bhutan’s government. To do that, we can contrast Bhutan’s government structure with Nepal’s. Although Nepal is a federal democratic republic, it’s multi-party democracy was taken over by Hindu, high-caste men who centralized the power. “The absence of elected officials at the local level and the consequent introduction of the All-Party Mechanism … contributed to the spread of patronage systems, impunity, and corruption.”[14] On the contrary, Bhutan transitioned its Kingdom to a constitutional Monarch in 2008, with a “vision of a decentralized system of governance in Bhutan .. to bring decision-making over sustainable, just and harmonious socio-economic development closer to local communities.”[15] By decentralizing power, the government was able to gain trust in its citizens and effectively propagate actions within the state in the midst of a pandemic.

GNH and Government Policies

To examine Bhutan’s government policies, it is important to view it through a cultural lens. As stated in the text Everyday Life in South Asia, “The intertwining of religion with politics and economics can be discerned in even the briefest outline of the histories of these religions in South Asia.”[16] Bhutan’s government policies are based on improving GNH (Gross National Happiness) which is closely tied to Buddhism, the primary religion in Bhutan. GNH “aims at maximizing well-being and minimizing suffering by balancing economic needs with spiritual and emotional needs.”[17] Public services like universal health care are key pillars contributing to GNH and “proved to be its first line of defense”[12] when battling COVID. Additionally, original limits on tourism put forth by Bhutan’s government stemming from their focus on environmental sustainability also contributed to lessening COVID’s Impact. Buddhism’s influence can be discerned through Bhutan’s economic actions as well. Rather than focusing on balancing saving lives versus saving the economy, the government “strives to balance economic development with its GNH philosophy.”[18]

Government’s International Policies

To understand the COVID situation in Bhutan, we must also look at Bhutan’s international relations. From a geographic perspective, Bhutan’s fight with the pandemic seems minor. 70% of the country is covered by forest and population density is low. Although this certainly contributed to containing the pandemic efficiently, it is also important to understand the sociopolitical interactions. As stated in Dots on the Map: Anthropological Locations and Responses to Nepal’s Earthquakes, “Location, in its geographical sense, has been the necessary starting point for relief. Yet, in its sociopolitical sense, location has been one of the obstacles to achieving it.”[19]

In addition to understanding Bhutan’s geographic situation, we must also look at the sociopolitical dynamics surrounding Bhutan. Through this lens, we can see Bhutan was in a vulnerable position at the start of the pandemic. The country shared a porous border with its neighbour India and is a popular tourist destination for China. Furthermore, Bhutan relies on imports such as food and fuel from India to sustain itself and its economy relies heavily on tourism, which “makes up 9% of gross domestic product and provides the largest employment opportunity to Bhutanese youth.”[18] Shutting down borders, including its shared border with India in the early stages of the pandemic cut off an important economic lifeline but proved to be a key step in minimizing the spread of COVID.

The government has also taken further steps to solidify cooperation with India to ensure the supply of essential medical supplies and other commodities do not get interrupted. “Bhutan has endorsed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative of using the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to fight the pandemic. India has contributed C$1.4 million to SAARC’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund and promoted the SAARC Disaster Management Centre in Gujarat as the main information-sharing and best-practice sharing network.”[20]

Bhutan's Government's timely and effective response was enabled by strong leadership, evidence based decision making, strong foundational trust in the government, policies based on prioritizing citizen's well-being, and cooperation with neighbouring countries.

Impacts to the Agriculture Sector and its Workers

[21]An example of what a Farmers' Market looks like in Bhutan before the pandemic.

The impacts COVID-19 has in Bhutan stretch through all sectors. One sector that is impacted by COVID-19 is agriculture. Due to the impacts that COVID-19 brought to the agriculture sector, the sector and its new workers have been gaining support from the Bhutanese government while large Bhutanese corporations are also supporting members in the sector.

Government Support for the Agriculture Sector

Bhutan’s government decided to support its agricultural sector due to its COVID-19 restrictions. One way to analyze the reason for Bhutan’s assistance is through Willem van Schendel's discussion on the flow of goods between Southeast Asian national borders into localities and how certain events could disrupt these flows.[22] Using van Schendel’s analysis, it is possible to see a similar approach happening in Bhutan during the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the flow of imported agricultural products, like vegetables, where a majority is grown in the Indian locality of Falakata, that Bhutan critically relies on were banned and extremely limited due to border closures between the two nations.[23] As a result, Bhutan has suffered and insisted on self-sufficiency and increasing its own agricultural productions, with some even insisting that “the [Bhutanese] government should push agriculture to the top of the national agenda”.[23] Furthermore, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering emphasized increased investments into the agricultural sector to have more people take up agriculture to make Bhutan self-sufficient.[23] Through this, Bhutan realizes its reliance on Indian localities and its need to support its own agricultural sectors in order to become agriculturally self-sufficient, especially during pandemic conditions. Therefore, the pandemic impacted Bhutan's agricultural sector by bringing it into the spotlight and bringing more attention towards it to better it.

Government Support for New Workers in the Agriculture Sector

The Bhutanese government also engages in other ways to increasingly support its agricultural sector. Borrowing Seira Tamang’s analysis on the role the Nepalese government had in assisting its citizens after the 2015 earthquake, it will allow us to see the extensive efforts the Bhutanese government took to support its citizens during the pandemic. Tamang’s analysis concludes that the Nepalese government in 2015 was not connected with its people and there was little support given, this causes the belief that “these institutions continue to be viewed as entities that are inaccessible and disengaged from the everyday wants and needs of citizens”.[24] In addition, Seira Tamang further concludes that “citizens of Nepal feel alienated from state structures, and this contributes to their reluctance to engage with the state amidst a sense of helplessness and frustration”.[24] The Bhutanese government, on the other hand, is opposite of Tamang’s negative conclusion on Nepal.

The Bhutanese government is engaged with and willing to help and provide for its citizens during the pandemic. Many laid off workers, like tour guides and hotel workers and owners in Bhutan had resorted to joining the agricultural industry and farming in order to earn an income.[25] The Bhutanese government assisted these new agricultural workers in different means. For Chimmi Dema and others who were impacted, the Bhutanese government helped these citizens by having the Agriculture Department assist with land cultivation activities.[25] In addition, “the agricultural department… leased 22.81 acres of land to laid-off workers… [and] allocated land to 24 tour groups”.[25] Furthermore, “Agricultural Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the ministry would support interested individuals and groups in farming even after the pandemic”.[25] These new agricultural workers take this opportunity as a positive experience as some believe that their new farming knowledge could be useful in their original occupations and a positive influence since the products may be given to facilities that are in need of food.[25] Comparing the Bhutanese government’s pandemic response to Tamang’s analysis of Nepal’s post-disaster response for its citizens, Bhutan is willing to step in and support their citizens by allowing them to function in the agricultural sector. In this sense, Bhutan is effectively helping its new agricultural workers and expanding its own agriculture as well.

Bhutanese Corporations Supporting the Small-Scale Members of the Agriculture Sector

Emphasizing the importance of agriculture, looking closer into the agriculture sector, Bhutan is also helping farmers get through the pandemic. Sara Shneiderman, Jeevan Baniya, and Philippe Le Billon’s analysis on how Nepal deals with the COVID-19 pandemic is also applicable to how Bhutan deals with the pandemic. As the authors write in their analysis, "Nepal’s experience with these cascading upheavals can help us understand how multiple vulnerabilities may not only challenge communities, but also help them generate complex approaches to anticipating and mitigating systemic disruptions".[26] Similarly, Bhutan has also generated new approaches in the sector to deal with the challenges that accompany the pandemic.

In Bhutan, in order to assist the small-scale members of its agricultural sector - those being farmers, an alternate method was created to support them. Due to COVID-19 containment protocols, many farmers cannot attend farmers' markets in order to sell their products, but in Phuentsholing, the Online Farmers’ Market System (OFMS) was created with the help of the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited and Royal Securities Exchange of Bhutan.[27] The OFMS is invaluable to farmers during the pandemic since they can upload product information online for buyers to view, even if they are across the closed borders or within Bhutan, without relying on third party middlemen to facilitate the transaction as payments are determined by the buyer and seller.[27] The OFMS therefore allows the agricultural sector on the micro level, the local farmers, to continue to work and earn a living during the pandemic, which represents an alternate method to handle difficult situations and disruptions in their livelihoods.

Furthermore, this new format is similar to Sara Shneiderman, Jeevan Baniya, and Philippe Le Billon’s analysis. In Nepal, the authors concluded that “Nepal’s earthquake-affected communities…have fashioned new lives through a combination of creativity, perseverance… with some state and international intervention”.[26] For Bhutan, as a result of the pandemic, “the online system will go a long way in changing the lives of rural folks and in the transformation of the agricultural market in the country… the online marketing practice should continue even after Covid-19”.[27] As a result, this would mean that Bhutan’s alternative method to assist farmers can possibly become a new way for them to live, even after the pandemic is over, thus, showing that the pandemic has impacted the future livelihoods of local farmers.

Bhutan’s agriculture sector has surely been impacted by the pandemic. As seen, impacts not only include more attention given to the sector, but also saw the government and other Bhutanese corporations support new and old agricultural workers who were affected by the pandemic. Through this, Bhutan's agriculture sector has truly been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately changing it for the future.

Impacts of Covid-19 on Women - Sarah

[28]Women selling vegetables in Bhutan

Prior to the pandemic, women were already facing various challenges, "as they are systematically disadvantaged and often suppressed by poverty, violence, inequality, and marginalization," which is a reality that has ultimately made women more vulnerable to the negative impacts of the pandemic.[29] Arguably, some of the most significant issues that women are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic are economic instability and employment issues, in addition to increases in domestic and gender-based violence due to lockdown and quarantining measures. In the context of Bhutan, certain actions have been taken by various organizations and Bhutanese institutions in order to support women economically and socially during this time of uncertainty and difficulty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is also important to consider the potential long-term effects of these issues, and how these issues can be addressed in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Economic Impacts

In Bhutan, many women participate in the informal sector of the nation’s economy by selling vegetables at local markets, such as the Centenary Farmers’ Market in the nation’s capital city, Thimphu.[30] Many of these women claim that this particular line of work is appealing due to its flexibility, which allows them to schedule work around their gendered roles at home, and due to it being one of the only options for women who have not received an education.[30] This participation in the informal economy, despite the often meagre wages and additional labour on top of their domestic responsibilities, has not only increased their sense of financial independence and equality within the home, but may have also contributed to decreases in domestic violence.[30] However, the Bhutanese women who grow and sell vegetables independently at markets have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.[30] Prior to COVID-19, many of the vendors were already seeing a decline in profits due to competition from larger corporations and a lack of government support.[30] However, this issue has been exacerbated by pandemic policies, including a reduction in hours, and a reduction in customers due to customers opting to staying at home in order to reduce the spread of the disease.[30] Nevertheless, the women continue to sell vegetables, as it remains one of their only options to earn wages.[30]

Economic projects established by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have played a considerable role in efforts to provide employment and wages for women who have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic.[31] One project in particular, which is a collaborative initiative between various CSOs, but is specifically headed by SABAH Bhutan, has hired over 200 Bhutanese women for the primary purpose of manufacturing reusable cloth facemasks to help minimize the spread of Covid-19.[31] Although the wages are not considerably high, they are still vital, as many of the employees rely on these wages to support their families, such as Phuntsho Dema, who is a single mother to two children.[31][32] In addition, some women who are part of the project also express that producing reusable cloth facemasks for their country and their King provides them with a sense of duty, pride, and purpose during the pandemic.[32] Evidently, these sentiments ultimately highlight a sense of nationalism among the women that has been inadvertently generated by the facemask project. However, unlike past sources of Bhutanese nationalism, such as nationalist ideals that were based on ethnic differences and ultimately led to the Bhutan refugee crisis in the 1990s, this particular source does not seem to be divisive in its nature.[2] Rather, it creates a sense of unity within the country, especially for the women who are producing the facemasks.[32] Currently, the project is in the process of expanding, and is beginning to sell the facemasks on the Bhutanese market, specifically in pharmacies.[31] Overall, projects like this are essentially helping to alleviate some of the financial stress that women are feeling due to COVID-19 and its negative effects on Bhutan’s economy, while also providing an important product for members of Bhutanese society to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, and contributing to a sense of national unity.[31][32]

A number of women entrepreneurs in Bhutan are mitigating the negative effects of COVID-19 with the help of the organizations the South and South-West Asia Office of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF).[33] In a joint effort, these organizations are providing training for women who own and operate local businesses to help them participate in e-commerce.[33] Although this initiative began before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of e-commerce will undoubtedly help these entrepreneurs earn a living online, at a time when in-person interactions and sales are declining due to the pandemic.[33]

Increases in Gender-Based Violence

Many individuals in Bhutan have been staying at home in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and a country-wide lockdown was officially imposed on August 11, 2020 .[30][3] The increase in the general amount of time individuals are spending at home due to the pandemic has had negative ramifications for many women, who are experiencing higher rates of gender-based violence within the home as a result.[34] To help combat the rise of violence against women, legal counsel, counselling, and shelter are being provided to survivors who seek support.[34] In addition, strategies have been implemented to provide education and training for staff who respond to domestic violence calls and situations.[34] These training measures largely focus on equipping front-line workers with appropriate strategies for communicating and supporting survivors of gender-based violence, such as adopting an approach that creates a safe environment for the survivor to speak about her situation.[34]

Efforts to support women in Bhutan who are facing domestic and gender-based violence during the pandemic have also been publicly encouraged by Sangay Choden, who is a member of Bhutan’s royal family.[35] She emphasizes the critical nature of prioritizing issues relating to violence against women during the pandemic, and acknowledges the importance of creating and implementing relevant and effective government policies regarding these issues.[35] Ideas for effective policies could potentially be derived from the responses of other nations in South Asia that have experienced disasters in the recent past, such as Nepal. For example, during the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in 2015, the Nepali government, in addition to various other independent organizations, provided access to mental health services for individuals traumatized by the earthquake.[36] Similarly, survivors of gender-based violence also often experience long-term trauma, in addition to various other mental health issues, as a result of the violence, and would therefore benefit from having mental health resources available to them, not just during the pandemic, but afterwards as well.[36][29] Mental-health issues as a result of gender-based violence may also have a negative effect on the overall status of women, as the everyday lives of survivors, especially those without support and resources, would likely be significantly affected by their mental health.[29]

In order to adequately address the issue of gender-based violence and its rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that women’s experiences vary due to intersectionality.[29] Gendered experiences of violence must ultimately be looked at in relation to various other factors, including class, race, and caste, in order to ensure government policies and social services are relevant, effective, and accessible during the pandemic and after.[29] Additionally, women must be included in creating these policies and social services to ensure that the support for gender-based violence survivors is prioritized.[29]

Religion and History's Impact on Government Response - Akhila

Governors of Bhutan in Driglam Namzhag in front of Buddhist temple[37]

Bhutan is home to numerous ethnic groups and religions, with the majority and national religion being Vajrayana Buddhism. Bhutan's government is also constitutionally Buddhist, and many of their governing principles and values are lifted directly from Buddhism. While the country states as of the Bhutanese Constitution of 2008 that freedom of religion is guaranteed[38], it is important to analyze how Buddhist values influence the government's actions, as well as how social discrimination and their historical ethnic and religious cleansing may potentially be causing differences in care amongst minority populations.

Ethnic Cleansing and Religious Persecution

The official religion in Bhutan is Vajrayana Buddhism and is practiced by 75% of the population, primarily by the Tibetan-origin Ngalop people in the western and central regions of Bhutan.[39] The second most common religion is Hinduism and is practiced by the ethnically Nepali Lhotshampa people in the south.[39]

Bhutan underwent a great deal of violent ethnic and religious unrest in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, a new census led to many ethnic Nepalis losing citizenship they had previously held and branded as illegal immigrants, thereby making them stateless and denying them access to healthcare and other public facilities.[40] The government also introduced numerous policies to enforce what they called "one nation, one people" that heavily stressed Tibetan-origin Bhutanese culture.[41] For example, between 1987 to 1992 the Bhutanese government created a policy called Driglam Namzhag stating that all people had to wear a specfic national dress that was Tibetan in origin.[2] According to researcher Michael Hutt, even officials later felt that policy was far too harshly applied, and it not only led to a spike in police brutality due to abuse of power but also a significant increase in tensions from minority populations due to their inability to wear traditional Hindu or other religious clothing.[2] In 1990, riots broke out in Nepal, and the primarily Lhotshampa Bhutan People's Party began committing acts of violence at the majority Ngalop government.[40] Over 100,000 Lhotshampa fled Bhutan in the 90s to refugee camps in Nepal, Britain, the United States and other countries.[40]

It took another decade for Bhutan to control religious discrimination at a federal level, and in the Bhutanese Constitution of 2008 freedom of religion was included as a guaranteed statute.[38] Bhutan has also taken other measures to help boost religious co-existence. In 2007 the government passed The Religious Organizations Act and created a group called the Chhoedey Lhentshog to consist of head individuals from various religions to oversee and maintain religious groups.[42] This does not necessarily mean that discrimination has disappeared, however. Lhotshampa still report various acts of social discrimination, such as being fired from work for openly talking about religion. The Chhoedey Lhentshog is not a perfect solution -- there is still very little Lhotshampa representation in direct government, and having just one person represent all Hindus in Bhutan does not allow the religion the complexity that is allowed for Buddhism. Researcher Shail Mayaram's discussions about there not being a perfect linearity between religions and ethnic groups in India holds true for Bhutan as well.[43] The lived experiences of minority groups cannot also be treated as a monolith and attempting to erase them is not a valid means for constructing a unified country.[43]

Buddhist Influence on Government Policy and Potential Medical Discrimination

Bhutan's government is influenced by Buddhist values threefold: first, the official country religion is Buddhism and so follows many Buddhist values and dynamics; second, the majority of members of parliament are the Ngalop people who are Buddhist; and third, the kingdom endorses and promotes Buddhism.[44] Much of the country's policy therefore comes from various aspects of the religion; for example, Bhutan's famous policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH).[45] The four pillars of GNH are "sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance", all of which are directly pulled from Buddhist values.[44] Buddhist-inspired policy like GNH have helped heavily inform Bhutan's COVID-19 as a result in a positive way, and Bhutan has had one of the highest success rates with regards to maintaining the pandemic.[45]

Unfortunately this strong Buddhist influence has also denied minority groups any chance of representation. Numerous reports have looked into the ways the government has actively denied the construction of non-Buddhist temples and right to practice religion in some regions.[46] While the government claims otherwise, this sort of systematic denial of service is worrisome in light of Bhutan's history regarding ethnic cleansing and the pandemic. Researcher Veena Das discusses how national narratives can severely harm actions and reputations circling amongst the public.[9]

A major issue in terms of trying to track aspects like healthcare discrimination is how little information Bhutan has on its healthcare system. Bhutan only began influenza coverage in April 2010, and while it does cover basic facts like statistics it does not yet cover more nuanced demographics.[47] This is particularly important because a US Department of State report in 2015 confirmed that Lhotshampa, amongst other things, were commonly denied public healthcare, meaning that there is a lot of information that isn't currently being tracked.[48] Furthermore, as a result of nationalistic coverage of the medical response this means that information regarding the treatment of minority groups is little to none, even on prior national illnesses like H1N1.[47]

As a result, despite a policy of free healthcare Bhutan's lack of minority representation within government may and can heavily impact medical access as a result of social narratives around minorities; namely, the heavily discriminated Lhotshampa people. Given both Bhutan's history of ethnic cleansing and the fact that the Lhotshampa people currently face heavy discrimination in other contexts, they may potentially face discrimination when receiving COVID-19 treatment because of (or perhaps despite) the Buddhist values that govern the country. Due to continued religious and ethnic tensions there is a probability of Lhotshampa facing medical discrimination, and it will be important to look out for whether social bias has translated into the medical field in Bhutan.

Nationalistic Rhetoric in COVID-19 Response - Tatiana

Illustration found on Daily Bhutan news site of Dharma King Jigme Kheser Namgyal Wangchuck protecting Bhutan from COVID-19.

Bhutan's success to date with managing COVID-19 is documented by media sources through strongly nationalistic language and rhetoric, a phenomenon which can be connected to a larger nationalistic ideology which Bhutanese authorities operate under. Although praise for the government is legitimate, nationalistic underpinnings of COVID coverage may lead to dangerous consequences in the future, leaving marginalized voices out while praising the powers at be.

Bhutanese Media During Pandemic

Media coming out of Bhutan during COVID-19 often does little but praise Dharma King Jigme Kheser Namgyal Wangchuck while spouting notions of nation-wide unity and solidarity. A Kuensel Online article works to unabashedly praise the King for his pandemic response: "The people of Bhutan owe a huge debt of gratitude to His Majesty The King for his selfless service and for being the beacon of hope in these very difficult and uncertain times. Whatever we have achieved thus far in preventing the spread of the disease in Bhutan is due to the wise counsel and leadership of His Majesty The King"[49]. The article then calls for Bhutanese citizens to "work together with steadfast resolve and unity of purpose to protect our communities and our nation and to fulfill the vision of our beloved King of a strong, secure and happy nation", connective collective responsibility to both ideas of monarchy and the nation.

Bhutan imposed a nationwide lockdown on August 11th, 2020, following the potential community spread of a positive COVID test result[50]. Although this news disrupted the stream of praise enjoyed by Bhutan's leaders, media is still overwhelmingly positive. The Daily Bhutan's reporting on the lockdown continuoiusly praises the speed of response by authorities, and ends with noting the generosity of the King and Bhutan's monarchy. A lengthy footnote defines Kidu for the reader, a constitutionally enshrined Royal Perogative which mandates the King's service to the most vunerable parts of society; "Throughout the century, hundreds of thousands of children, elderly, disabled and sick people have received and continue to receive personal care from their King"[50]. Further analysis such as "Dharma King of Bhutan augment enormous respect for the magnanimity and compassionate act during Lockdown" begin reporting on the unprecedented lockdown with scenes of the King compassionately feeding stray dogs, showing that he "not only bestows affection and solicitude to the people of Bhutan" but also for dogs[51]. These stories work to emphasize the generosity of the Bhutanese state and it's monarch, while avoiding any analysis of the experience of Bhutanese induviduals, or issues in the kingdom's system.

Conceptual and historical underpinnings

These pieces of media imagine Bhutan as homogenous in culture and veneration to the King, as perfectly unified in the fight against COVID, and perhaps outside forces in general. The interweaving of traditional notions such as Kidu and the very modern reality of COVID-19, a disease which in so many ways relies on state apparatus to control, parallels the ways in which concepts of "nation-state" have proliferated in the Himalayas. Richard Burghart's analysis of the formation of the "nation-state" in Nepal centers on the creation of a Nepal that is led by a "uniquely Nepalese" form of government, yet one that is also designed to fit within a larger global order[52]. Such a government combines the realm within which the king of Gorkha operates sprititually with ideas of property and borders, resulting in a system that oscilates between spiritual foundation and state apparatus; the contemporary nation-state of Nepal. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan finds itself at a similar juncture, merging monarchy with modern nation-state, and leading to media which seeks to continuously legitimate these forms of governance.

As studied by Michael Hutt, Bhutan possesses a certain state-enshrined ethnic nationalism, leading to a refugee crisis of Nepali Bhutanese people leaving Bhutan after increasing hostility from the Bhutaneses state. Bhutan enforced nationalistic policies such as 'one nation, one people' in the 1980's and 1990's[2], mandating dress and language which aligned with Dzongkha speaking, Bhuddist Bhutan. While these policies came out of a need for Bhutan to strengthen it's sovereignty and cultural identity, they displaced thousands of Nepali Bhutanese and disallowed cultural diversity in the Kingdom. Bhutan's code of Driglam Namzhang seeks to enshrine certain cultural values and practices in perpetuity, while homogenizing and silencing dissenting voices[2]. This kind of underpinning exists under reporting which calls for a "strong, secure and happy nation" under the rule of the Monarchy; an insistence on a very narrow definition of a Bhutanese citizen.

Dangerous futures

While the existing nationalistic rhetoric has already harmed ethnic minorities within Bhutan, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a crisis situation that holds potential to further these divisions and ignore societal issues within the nation. Writing in the context of the 1984 riots in India, Veena Das understands the "movement of images: between discourses of militancy and diffused recounts of events circulate during crises as rumors[9]. Das recognizes the perceptions of Hindus and Sikhs as rooted in metaphors of 'true kinship' and 'false kinship', and how rumors and discourse can lead to mass violence. Understanding this immense importance of messaging and conversation during times of crisis, coupled with Bhutan's roots in ethnic nationalism, Bhutanese reporting of the pandemic which glosses over difference in favor of nationalistic rhetoric becomes worrying. As Das writes, "the percularory force of rumour shows how fragile the social world we inhabit may be". With Bhutanese nationalism funtioning to enforce a unified culture and strengthen borders, it seems that a turn to the divisive and misinforming could be on the horizon for Bhutanese news sources.

Tradition and Bhutan's COVID-19 Response - Meral

Bhutan’s success in its battle with COVID-19 is largely attributed to its tradition and heritage. Arjun Appadurai speaks on the power of culture, stating “Culture, unmarked, can continue to be used to refer to the plethora of differences that characterize the world today”. In this case, the culture of Bhutan and their strengthened the community and gave it the resources necessary to battle such a pandemic. [53] Although they have developed largely to enhance their economy, they have not let go of their traditions and values. This is apparent through a quick glance of Bhutan’s history and how it has developed. By looking at Bhutan in the 1950s, Bhutan can be described as an extremely self-isolated country. However, it has continuously increased their connections with the outside world over recent decades. Generally, after a crisis hits a country, the current state of the country is widely critiqued by its citizens and evaluations are made on how to move forward.[54] In Bhutan's case, this pandemic has made it clear that although globalization and science are important for the development of a country, a country’s heritage is a very important aspect that can be used to survive in troubling times. [12]

How tradition and community increased Bhutan’s success in battling COVID-19

The National Happiness Index plays a large role in how Bhutan managed to avoid the worst outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis. The National Happiness Index was created by the Bhutanese government in an attempt to develop the country economically whilst maintaining its traditional society. Maintaining Bhutan’s traditional society supports its noneconomic sources of well-being, like “the quality of relationships between individuals in a household or between households in a village that contributes to communal trust, or the quality of the environment or pursuit of spiritual practice to keep your mind and emotions healthy”. [55] This sense of tradition that Bhutan managed to maintain throughout the years is what ultimately created a sense of community which caused the people of Bhutan to rise up and work together to fight COVID-19. Farmers and farming co-ops started donating crops and offering up agricultural products to help their communities. People gave food and money in charity to help those in need. Hotel owners voluntarily offered their properties to be used as quarantine facilities. Restaurants and volunteers prepared and distributed food for free to those in need of it. [56] Businesses offered cash contributions. Finally, even the locals who had no resource of value to offer managed to find a way to help their community by collaborating with the government to set up quarantine zones in villages with makeshift isolation huts built of bamboo.[12]

"The Question of Locality in Rupture" by Mallika Shakya from the series "Aftershocked: Reflections on the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal", speaks on the actions of the people of Nepal after the earthquake, stating "A vernacular public meaning emerged through reenactment of the social behavior of the past, whether by cremating and mourning the dead, invoking cultural rituals to warn of imminent danger, or seeking and offering help"[57]. Throughout the article, the author spoke about how the societal barriers that had been created were broken when faced with disaster and people came together to help each other. People went back to their tradition and cultural rituals to create a sense of warmth in the country and help each other survive the tragedy. People helped feed each other and give each other shelter very similar to how the Bhutanese handled the pandemic within their country.

Image from a quarantine centre in Paro as published in Kuensel Online

By looking at the country’s response to COVID-19, the sense of tradition is apparent through the many stories regarding how the Bhutanese contributed to their communities. Although there are many general contributions that people have made to their community to aid in the fight against this crisis, the traditional values held by this community can be seen more clearly by looking at individual contributions by the people of this community. Dargay is a young tailor who used his skills to create a business called Druk Kha Ray to create face masks. His contribution helped reduce the import of face masks and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Eupel Dakini Dorji is an agriculturist who wanted to help their community’s need for produce as the country closed its borders and with that its ability to import. Their team began to dehydrate fruits and mushrooms and distributed the products to schools. Similarly, Sanjay Needup used his business Bhutan Smart Shop to start delivering their locally grown vegetables to the doorsteps of Thimphu residents to lessen the need for them to leave their homes. In another attempt to lessen the need for imports, Tenzin Wangdy quit college to establish Apaza Organic Farm which scaled its production and aims to supply 60 tons of fresh organic vegetables in and around Thimphu. Meanwhile, Greener Way volunteered and is working closely with the Ministry of Health and Thimphu Thromde in same collection and disposal of infectious waste coming out from the quarantine facilities and clinics. Finally, Namkhar used his online educational platform ‘Rigpah’ to work with educators to develop learning materials and will make these resources accessible to students free of cost till the end of this year. [58]

History of Bhutan’s response to pandemics

This isn’t the first pandemic that has struck Bhutan. Bhutan has a generally good history with dealing with such events. BBC’s documentation of the malaria pandemic reveals that Bhutan managed to fight Malaria fairly successfully, even compared to its more developed neighbors like India. BBC states “The progress in Bhutan has outpaced the advancements in India, but then Bhutan is a small country with some unique features that have aided it in the fight against malaria”. [59] The article goes on to describe some of the unique features that can be awarded for Bhutan’s success in fighting Malaria, one of which is the volunteer community action groups that created their own training camps in their local areas. Once again, Malaria’s traditional values and sense of community managed to aid in its fight against such a pandemic.

On the other hand, when one analyzes Bhutan’s response to the H1N1 pandemic, it is clear to see that they were not as prepared to handle such an event. Although they were still better off than their neighbors, they had minimal influenza surveillance which made it much more difficult to maintain the spread of H1N1. Therefore, transmission was fairly rapid.[60] However, following this pandemic, Bhutan became much more prepared for epidemics in the future as they set up PCR facilities and became prepared to surveille such events. Therefore, although Bhutan’s tradition and heritage played a large role in creating a community ready to battle COVID-19 in ways other larger more developed countries could not, their history and experience of dealing with such events made it easier to surveille the spread of COVID-19 and control.


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