Top economists in no rush to offer cash incentives for vaccination

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityAustralia’s top economists are reluctant to endorse the use of either cash incentives or lotteries to boost vaccination rates.

A survey of 60 leading Australian economists selected by the Economic Society has instead overwhelmingly endorsed a national advertising campaign (90%), vaccine passports for entry to high-risk settings such as flights, restaurants and major events (85%) and mandatory vaccination for high-risk occupations (81.7%).

Offered six options for boosting uptake once supply was in place and asked to pick as many as they liked, only 35% picked cash incentives and only 31.6% lotteries.

Many said advertising and vaccine passports should work on their own.

Others, such as Uwe Dulleck from the Queensland University of Technology, suggested that while cash and lotteries might also work, “maybe a little bit”, they were ethically no better than coercion.

The panel selected by the Economic Society includes leading experts in the fields of behavioural economics, welfare economics and economic modelling. Among them are a former and current member of the Reserve Bank board.

Read more:
Paying Australians $300 to get vaccinated would be value for money

Michael Knox of Morgans Financial said the most important thing for getting Australians vaccinated was “trust”.

Trust could be built through a national advertising campaign delivered via doctors and chemists as well as the media.

Others supported advertising in principle, but doubted the government’s ability to do it well.

The Australian government’s A$3.8 million “tacos and milkshake” campaign about sexual consent did not inspire confidence, said RMIT’s Leonora Risse.

The University of Sydney’s Stefanie Schurer said an easy and effective measure would be to simply reduce “transaction costs”. Many vaccinations don’t take place simply because they are difficult to arrange.

‘What’s in it for me?’

Former OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall said as a child in the 1950s, if you turned up on the day the polio or smallpox caravan was at school, you were either lined up and injected with a vaccine, or else given a lump of sugar with vaccine on it to swallow. “There was no debate, thank heaven.”

Underlying the reticence of two-thirds of those surveyed to endorse vaccine payments — along the lines of the $300 suggested by Labor or “VaxLotto” suggested by the Grattan Institute — was a concern that it would change the debate to “what’s in it for me?”.

Reserve Bank board member Ian Harper said “what’s in it for the rest of us” was at least as important.

Read more:
Why lotteries, doughnuts and beer aren’t the right vaccination ‘nudges’

Macquarie University’s Elisabetta Magnani said cash incentives could “validate mistrust”. The University of Sydney’s Susan Thorp was concerned they might set a precedent.

“Would people expect another cash incentive in future for COVID vaccination boosters or for flu shots or childhood diseases?” she asked.

‘My body, my choice’

Two of the 60 economists surveyed backed “no additional measures”. UNSW Sydney economist Gigi Foster said the choice should be an individual’s, made without social shaming, goading, moralising or outright coercion.

But others strongly disagreed with the prospect of no additional measures. The University of Melbourne’s Leslie Martin said while personal choice mattered, it “should not come at a cost to others”. And Stefanie Schurer said in a world where individual freedoms were already wildly curbed, vaccination mandates and passports did not seem off the charts:

A requirement for children to meet immunisation schedules has been attached to childcare payments since 1998 and for the Family Tax Benefit A supplement from 2012. Families can access their family-related Centrelink payments only if their child’s vaccination schedule is up-to-date. In 2015 exemption rules were tightened to make it harder for so-called conscientious objectors. States such as NSW have also introduced vaccination mandates for children to access childcare centres.

Several of the economists who supported cash payments and lotteries said they should be held in reserve and used only as a “last resort”.

The Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood said even if they only shifted the dial a few percentage points, there was a big difference between getting 75% of people vaccinated and 80%.

Eighty per cent might be enough to get a re-opening of the economy to “stick” without the need for further lockdowns.

Detailed responses:

The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our survey results show incentives aren’t enough to reach a 80% vaccination rate

John P. de New, The University of Melbourne; Anthony Scott, The University of Melbourne, and Kushneel Prakash, The University of MelbourneThe COVID-19 Delta variant has changed the vaccination game in Australia.

With outbreaks resulting in a prolonged lockdown for Sydney as well as shorter periods for other states, the proportion of Australians vaccinated has steadily increased while vaccine hesitancy has fallen.

The latest survey data collected by the Melbourne Institute show vaccine hesitancy had fallen to 21.5% of the adult population at the end of July 2021, compared with 33% at the end of May 2021.

But how much further can it fall?

Our data suggests there are qualitatively different types of vaccine hesitancy. The decline in vaccine hesitancy we have seen thus far is more about those who had just been “taking their time” rather than being steadfastly uncommitted.

Worryingly, our analyses suggest there remains a significant proportion of the population whose resistance to vaccination will be hard to shift, regardless of the incentive.

Our latest data indicates 11.8% of adult Australians are not willing to be vaccinated and a further 9.7% are unsure.

This data is derived from the Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey, a nationally representative survey of 1,200 Australians over the age of 18 every fortnight. The Melbourne Institute has been running this survey since March 2020 to track Australians’ attitudes towards the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among those aged 50 and older, 18% are steadfastly uncommitted to getting vaccinated — 10% being unwilling, while 8% say they are unsure.

Among those aged 18 to 49, the uncommitted rise almost to 28.8% — 14.1% being unwilling and 14.7% unsure.

Medical experts generally agree a vaccination rate of at least 80% among those aged 12 and above is needed to attain the herd immunity sufficient to stop larger outbreaks. The national cabinet has set a 70% vaccination rate to leave lockdowns largely behind, and a 80% rate to relax border restrictions and other measures.

Our results on the proportion of the population unwilling and unsure about vaccination suggest a struggle to reach these targets.

Read more:
VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on Closing the Gap, National Cabinet, and an 80% vaccination rate

Cash incentives not very effective

There may be few easy “nudges” to sway the uncommitted.

Of those who are unwilling or are unsure about vaccination, our survey shows no more than 6% of those aged 50 and older and no more than 16% of those aged 18 to 49 say they can be budged by an incentive such as a cash payment.

The chart below shows the responses of our 18-49-year-old survey participants about hypothetical cash incentives of $25, $50 and $100 for getting vaccinated immediately.

Slightly more of the participants were willing to accept the $100 payment over the smaller cash amounts. This suggests a few more people might be swayed by a much larger incentive, such as the $300 payment proposed by the federal Opposition. But our analysis suggests there is unlikely to be substantially more people willing to vaccinate.

Read more:
Paying Australians $300 to get vaccinated would be value for money

What about non-financial incentives?

If cash payments work only for a small proportion, what about other incentives?

One option is a vaccine passport to normality — allowing those that have been vaccinated to enjoy everyday activities such as dining in a restaurant, attending a concert or travelling.

The Europeans have done this with the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which provides proof the holder has been vaccinated, tested negative to COVID-19 or had it and recovered.

The national cabinet’s four-stage plan hints at this once the 70% vaccination rate is achieved, with points including easing restrictions and reducing quarantine arrangements for vaccinated residents.

But this may not increase vaccination rates by more than a few percentage points. The chart below shows less than 28% of those who are unwilling/unsure would submit to getting vaccinated even if the unvaccinated were banned from certain activities.

Breaking out the sticks

This steadfast hesitancy implies that debates about marketing campaigns and possible “carrots” are likely to give way to discussing “sticks” that do more than merely increase or prolong the nuisance factor for the unvaccinated.

Stronger legally binding restrictions could include outright vaccination requirements for work, school, day care and movement within society. In principle, this is nothing new. Children are required as a matter of course to provide their immunisation history to enrol in schools. The federal government doesn’t pay Family Tax Benefit Part A to the parents of an unvaccinated child.

However, heavy-handed mandatory vaccination policies are likely to be contested by some, simply due to being forced, driving those “on the fence” into the steadfast “anti-vax” camp, and possibly exacerbating the problem despite the good intention.

Read more:
Cash or freedoms: what will work in the race to get Australia vaccinated against COVID-19?

The federal government’s position is against mandatory vaccinations.

But the unanimous national cabinet plan to open the country up substantially at 70%-80% vaccination rates and not deal with future outbreaks by locking down means the unvaccinated must still contend with one of the largest sticks — indeed a “spiked club”.

Once we open up, the unvaccinated will be at much higher risk of illness, long-term medical consequences and even death. They will bear these consequences as individuals, without the special consideration or support that has been offered by governments previously.

It is crucial everyone understand this: if you are not vaccinated, the stick you should fear most, will be wielded by the virus itself.

Correction: This article originally stated children are required as a matter of course to be vaccinated to enrol in schools. This is the case only in some Australian jurisdictions. As a matter of course children are required to provide their immunisation history to enrol. The article has been amended to reflect this.The Conversation

John P. de New, Professorial Fellow (Professor of Economics), The University of Melbourne; Anthony Scott, Professor, The University of Melbourne, and Kushneel Prakash, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cash or freedoms: what will work in the race to get Australia vaccinated against COVID-19?

Anthony Scott, The University of Melbourne; John P. de New, The University of Melbourne, and Kushneel Prakash, The University of MelbourneThe race to vaccinate Australians is heating up as the supply of vaccines starts to increase and lockdowns continue.

Labor this week suggested a A$300 cash payment for people fully vaccinated by December. Meanwhile, “Operation COVID Shield”, the newly published national COVID vaccine campaign plan, includes support for “freedom incentives” put forward by the Coalition.

Let’s take a look at how effective the evidence suggests these measures might be in getting more Australians vaccinated.

Read more:
Paying Australians $300 to get vaccinated would be value for money

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccination is a key weapon in our armoury as we navigate the pandemic. We know it’s very effective in protecting people from illness and death, and also reduces transmission of COVID-19.

At this stage, only 19.8% of Australians over 16 have been fully vaccinated.

Although insufficient supply has been the main reason for the slow rollout to date, vaccine hesitancy is an increasingly important issue as we strive for herd immunity.

The latest data from our Taking the Pulse of the Nation Survey shows vaccine hesitancy in Australia has fallen to 21.5% since the recent outbreaks, from a high of 33% in late May.

Among that 21.5%, 11.8% of Australians remain unwilling to be vaccinated, while 9.7% are unsure.

So can financial or non-financial incentives bring these figures down and in turn speed up Australia’s vaccination rollout?

Read more:
Just the facts, or more detail? To battle vaccine hesitancy, the messaging has to be just right

Splashing the cash

The government has proclaimed cash incentives will have minimal impact on vaccination rates — although the review of the evidence they conducted hasn’t been published.

There is in fact evidence from a range of settings showing cash payments do have one-off effects in terms of persuading people to visit a health professional.

Our survey research has shown 54% of those willing to be vaccinated, but waiting, said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible if offered cash.

A health-care worker consults with a patient who appears to have just received a vaccination.
Cash incentives are likely to encourage people who are willing to get vaccinated, but haven’t done so yet.

Further analysis shows those willing and eligible to be vaccinated (people over 50 at the time these data were collected) were more likely to respond to cash payments if they were male, and if the amount was at least A$100. Overall, half said they would get vaccinated sooner if offered A$100 or more. So Labor’s plan of A$300 would be effective for this group.

However, for people who are unwilling or unsure about vaccination, cash payments may make only a small difference. Just 10% of this group said they would respond to cash.

This is because there are many reasons people may be unsure or don’t want to get vaccinated. These include a lack of access to unbiased advice and information, strong beliefs about vaccination including around vaccine safety, and medical conditions. To increase vaccination in this group, we need to consider different approaches.

Vaccination as a ticket to freedom

We’re likely to see non-financial incentives offered to fully vaccinated Australians as time goes on. These might be in the form of exemptions from health restrictions, or more lenient rules, around, for example, travel and social activities.

We know holding our vaccination records in our smartphones might provide us with more freedom, earlier. The United Kingdom now allows fully vaccinated travellers from the United States and the European Union to enter without quarantine, accepting the risk that even people who are vaccinated can still carry and spread the virus.

Read more:
Incentives could boost vaccine uptake in Australia. But we need different approaches for different groups

Our survey found roughly 70% of Australians think fully vaccinated people should be allowed to participate, without restriction, in sporting events, concerts, interstate travel, religious events, going to restaurants and movies, and the like. Around half believe those who remain unvaccinated once vaccination is available to everyone should be banned from these activities.

Slightly fewer think international travel should be unrestricted even when fully vaccinated.

Of people unwilling or unsure about vaccination, 18-28% stated they would get vaccinated if they were banned from these activities. This suggests that, compared to cash payments, non-financial incentives might be more likely to work for those who are unwilling or unsure about vaccination.

Where to next?

Both Labor’s and the Coalition’s incentive policies would have some impact on vaccination rates, but the devil is in the detail.

Cash payments are likely to be effective for those who are already willing to be vaccinated, but have not yet done so. This would speed up the rate of vaccination.

Cash is less likely to influence those who are unwilling or are unsure, though it could still work for some of these people.

Allowing fully vaccinated people more freedoms will likely increase the vaccination rates among those yet to get the jab, including those who are unsure or unwilling.

Reaching this group is the holy grail, giving us a better shot of attaining the elusive, but crucial, herd immunity. Incentives matter.

Read more:
Media reports about vaccine hesitancy could contribute to the problem

The Conversation

Anthony Scott, Professor, The University of Melbourne; John P. de New, Professorial Fellow (Professor of Economics), The University of Melbourne, and Kushneel Prakash, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Incentives could boost vaccine uptake in Australia. But we need different approaches for different groups

Sameer Deshpande, Griffith University and Joy Parkinson, Griffith UniversityAs Australia deals with growing levels of vaccine hesitancy, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has called for incentives to ensure as many people as possible get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Many countries around the world are offering benefits to encourage people to get vaccinated.

These incentives are built on the likelihood people who are hesitant, unmotivated or face barriers to getting vaccinated will embrace vaccination if they receive personal benefits which outweigh any perceived downsides to getting the vaccine, or upsides to not getting it.

Australia would do well to consider introducing some incentives. But they shouldn’t be blanket incentives — they should be part of a larger set of strategies and need to be tailored and targeted to particular groups.

From cash to cows and everything in between

Employers, service providers, and governments in the United States have offered a range of incentives.

Some are centred around entertainment. For example, New York is set to offer free tickets and cheap deals to city attractions, while Alabama residents could take two laps around the Talladega Superspeedway racetrack in their car. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Protect Chicago Music Series is open exclusively to vaccinated residents.

Some incentives have a raised a few eyebrows, like New Jersey’s “shot and a beer” campaign, which offers people a free beer if they’ve had the vaccine.

Some organisations are offering monetary incentives — supermarket chain Publix gives employees a US$125 Publix gift card (approximately A$160) after they receive both doses.

Read more:
Free beer, doughnuts and a $1 million lottery – how vaccine incentives and other behavioral tools are helping the US reach herd immunity

Some incentives deliver smaller benefits with certainty, such as free Uber and Lyft rides to and from vaccination sites around the US.

Others offer a small chance at a big prize, like entry into a weekly US$1 million lottery (roughly A$1.29 million) in Ohio.

We also find incentives aligned with local culture, such as 100 free targets for trap, skeet or sporting clay shooting in Randolph County, Illinois.

And it’s not just the US offering incentives. For example, in India, vaccinated residents can enter a competition to win 5,000 rupees (A$89), while those in a district of northern Thailand could win a live cow.

Do incentives work?

Although it is too early to tell us how well these incentives are working, research on other vaccines has shown financial incentives increase adherence seven-fold.

The Thai region running the cow lottery reportedly saw vaccine registration numbers jump from hundreds to thousands after they announced the incentive.

Importantly, incentives work in tandem with other strategies such as good, clear communication about vaccine efficacy and safety.

Read more:
Here are 9 ways we can make it easier for Australians to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Incentives shouldn’t be ‘one size fits all’

Our research shows understanding what motivates people to participate in health-promoting activities and then tailoring measures to encourage them accordingly improves the effectiveness of the interventions.

This means it’s vital to listen to the public. Australians love fun, sport, spending time with family and friends, and travelling. Any incentive or strategy should consider these values.

Here are five broad groups based on individuals’ willingness and ability to get vaccinated, and strategies which might appeal to each one.

1. The highly motivated

Those who are highly motivated and have good access to vaccination tend to be first to front up when they’re eligible. This group trusts science and the system and seeks information on where and when to get the vaccine.

These people don’t necessarily need additional incentives as they’re motivated by the desire to protect their family and get back to doing the things they enjoy.

That said, the government should specify a threshold of the population that needs to be vaccinated in order to open international borders.

A health-care worker puts a band-aid on a young person's arm after a vaccination.
Not everyone will need an incentive to get vaccinated.

2. A little hesitant

This group may be somewhat hesitant about vaccine efficacy, and want to take a wait-and-see approach. But they also want to be seen as looking after themselves and others in their community, including the vulnerable. They seek statistics on numbers vaccinated and social approval.

In Singapore, people receive a free #igotmyshot mask to show they’ve been vaccinated. As more people don these masks, people in this group would likely feel encouraged to get a vaccine.

In time, creating barriers to attending public events for those who haven’t been vaccinated, such as a cricket or football match, could also nudge this group.

3. The young and healthy

Young people and those without pre-existing conditions are often less concerned about the health benefits of vaccinations. So while they may not be hesitant, they might be less motivated.

Creative incentives that portray vaccination as fun, easy, and popular within their peer groups are likely to be beneficial. Offerings of free food and drinks, as we’ve seen overseas, could be a good example.

This group is also increasingly socially aware, as we see on the issue of climate change. Tapping into what’s important to them, such as being socially responsible, would be a key way to appeal to this demographic.

While people in this group are broadly not yet eligible to be vaccinated in Australia, the government should think ahead about appropriate initiatives. High vaccination levels in this group will be essential to reaching herd immunity.

4. Where access is challenging

A range of barriers can prevent certain people from being vaccinated. While we’re lucky in Australia the vaccine is free, some people may live in areas with fewer vaccination facilities or where they need to travel greater distances.

Setting up on-site vaccination clinics in workplaces or mobile vans at public transport hubs can assist this group. Offering money to compensate for travel time, fuel and childcare needs would make vaccination more attractive too.

5. Vaccine resisters

Some people resist vaccination due to questions on efficacy and distrust of the system. Incentives may not work for this group — they may even strengthen the determination not to vaccinate.

Communicating data on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines (as compared to the risks) and endorsement from trustworthy ambassadors could be helpful for this group.

Read more:
I’m over 50 and hesitant about the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. Should I wait for Pfizer?

There’s no “one size fits all” solution to motivate the entire population to get vaccinated. Instead, governments, non-profits and corporations need to consult with communities and create and target incentives accordingly, alongside other public health activities.The Conversation

Sameer Deshpande, Associate Professor, Social Marketing, Griffith University and Joy Parkinson, Research director, Social Marketing, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News


Attacker said he aimed to stop Christian conversions; Hindu extremist connection suspected.

NEW DELHI, March 10 (Compass Direct News) – In an effort to stop conversions to Christianity in the eastern state of Bihar, a 25-year-old ailing man on Sunday (March 8) exploded a crude bomb in a church and shot the pastor.

Police Inspector Hari Krishna Mandal told Compass that the attacker, Rajesh Singh, had come fully prepared to kill the pastor, Vinod Kumar, in Baraw village in the Nasriganj area of Rohtas district, and then take his own life.

“However,” Mandal said, “believers caught him before he could do more damage or kill himself.”

The 35-year-old pastor was taken to a hospital in nearby Varanasi, in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh and at press time was out of danger of losing his life, according to a leader of Gospel Echoing Missionary Society (GEMS) who requested anonymity.

The church, Prarthana Bhawan (House of Prayer), belongs to GEMS. Around 30 people were in the church when the attack took place. Some women in the church sustained burns in the blast.

“Rajesh Singh threw a crude bomb from the window of the church, and the sound of the explosion created a chaos in the congregation,” said Inspector Mandal. As members of the church began to run out, he added, Singh came into the building and shot the pastor with a handmade pistol from point-blank range.

Singh had more bombs to explode and three more bullets in his pistol, but church members caught hold of him and handed him over to police, the inspector said.

“In his statement, Singh said he was personally against Christian conversions and wanted to kill the pastor to stop conversions,” Mandal said. “He wanted to take his own life after killing the pastor, and this is why he had more bullets in his pistol and an overdose of anesthesia in a syringe.”

Asked if Singh had any links with extremist Hindu nationalist groups, the inspector said no such organization was active in the area, though local Christians say Hindu extremist presence has increased recently. The GEMS source said people allegedly linked with a Hindu nationalist group had sent a threatening letter to the pastor, asking him to stop preaching in the area.

The source said the incident could have been fallout from conversions in nearby Mithnipur village, where a Hindu family had received Christ after being healed from a mental illness around six months ago. Singh also lives in Mithnipur.

“Pastor Kumar had not been visiting the village, fearing opposition from the villagers who were not happy with the conversion of this family,” the GEMS source said. “The same church’s cross had also been damaged about a year ago by unidentified people.”

The source said he believes that although Singh’s affiliation or linkage with a Hindu nationalist group has not been established, it is likely that he was instigated to kill the pastor by an extremist group. Pastor Kumar, married with three children, has been working in Rohtas district for the last 12 years.

Local Christians complain that the presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar (a family of organizations linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group) has recently increased in the area. They say the Hindu nationalist conglomerate has been spewing hate against Christians for more than 10 years, accusing them of using monetary incentives and fraudulent means and foreign money to convert Hindus.

The attacker has an amputated hand and was said to be mentally disturbed since 1996, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Inspector Mandal said.

“According to the villagers,” he said, “Singh had been mentally disturbed ever since he was diagnosed with cancer, and later tuberculosis, although there is no medical report to substantiate this.”

The government of Bihar is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The JD-U is also part of the National Democratic Alliance, the main opposition coalition at the federal level led by the BJP. The JD-U, however, is not perceived as a supporter of Hindu nationalism.

Of the 82 million people, mostly Hindu, in Bihar, only 53,137 are Christian, according to the 2001 census.

Report from Compass Direct News