There is a lot Bhutan should teach the world and perhaps, instead of the gross national product, Gross National Happiness is what we should value post coronavirus, says Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa.  Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
There is a lot Bhutan should teach the world and perhaps, instead of the gross national product, Gross National Happiness is what we should value post coronavirus, says Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

OPINION: Gross National Happiness may be better measure as we tackle Covid-19

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published May 16, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - The Kingdom of Bhutan adopted a rare standard in the measurement of the wellbeing of its nation.  

This seems to be holding steady in the face of the coronavirus that is wreaking havoc in its trail. 

Globally while countries measure gross national product (GNP) as an indicator of progress, Bhutan measures Gross National Happiness (GNH).  

The Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has amongst others made a stinging critique on GNP as a measure of progress.  

As national statisticians, we are also conscious of the limitations of the GNP as a measure of progress. 

 However, it is an indicator in its political use has been promoted beyond what it was initially intended to deliver.  

The Sustainable Development Goals have reined in its popularity.  This rung true to what Stiglitz argued were positive additions of negative spin-offs of the GDP.  Industrial value add to GDP is not net of the negative pollution effects.

At a household level Stiglitz argues a husband could go to a gambling den, head to a striptease, along the way smash his car and finally in the wee hours of the morning get home to a grumpy wife then pick up a fight and both end up in hospital.  

All those activities are direct value add to economic activity even though they are degenerative to family life. 

Bhutan’s GNH radically addresses the question of what society should choose to treasure and thus measure what it treasures.  The relevance of that which we treasure has never come into sharp focus than under the pressure of coronavirus.  Although with differential impacts but with the bats and pangolins at the gates kings and queens run for dear life just as the plebiscite, the rich just as the poor.  

So what do we have to learn from Bhutan, which with just under a million population sits between China and India.  It is a neighbour to China, which became the first nation to be on the receiving end of Coronavirus.

Yet to date there has been no death and very few cases recorded in Bhutan.  

What would a new tomorrow for the rest of the world be like?  Will it still be the GNP, a mantra that came after the Second World War or will the new dawn be the GNH from Bhutan, which in very practical ways meets the preconditions of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Introduced in 2008 in the constitution of Bhutan the GNH distinguishes itself from the GNP by valuing collective happiness as a central pillar of governance. 

 It emphasises harmony with nature.  It brings into the centre traditional knowledge systems and their attendant values.  

In the main, therefore, it works on nine domains anchored on four pillars.  

The pillars are sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture and finally good governance.  

The nine domains of GNH are psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. 

If the budget was an expression of intent, South Africa would rank very high because it allocates about 40percent of its budget on education and health, yet the health and education outcomes are miserable.  

What then should we learn from Bhutan, not only as South Africa but the world? 

Bert Hewitt, a 71 year-old American and his 59 year-old wife visited Bhutan and he fell critically ill. The diagnosis proved to coronavirus.  

The level of medical care in Bhutan was up to the task and the critically ill Bert Hewitt, with underlying compromised health conditions, survived.  

The King of Bhutan took a personal interest and visited the ailing Hewitt.  All necessary steps medical and otherwise were taken in Bhutan to receive their students from China including, those from Huwan, the epicentre of the virus before the Chinese lockdown.  

Today Bhutan has only 11 cases of Coronavirus and zero deaths. 

Hewitt experienced first hand what life having equal worth means.  The US, the richest country on earth, has to date 83000 deaths and counting.  There is a lot Bhutan should teach the world and perhaps the GNH instead of the GNP is what we should value post coronavirus.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former Head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him on www.pie.org.za and @palijl01  

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