Despite the apparent lack of political leadership and slow action by the Thai government, the COVID-19 pandemic has been effectively controlled in Thailand thanks to its excellent public health and medical systems. Thailand was the first country with the first confirmed case outside of China, and the first confirmed case of a Thai citizen was a taxi driver who contracted the disease from a Chinese tourist in January 2020. The total number of confirmed cases as of early June 2020 hovered above 3,000 and deaths under 60, which are relatively low considering how closely connected the medium-size middle income country is to China, where the pandemic first started in December last year. The healthcare system has so far been able to handle the pandemic reasonably well, notwithstanding the heavy cost of the economic livelihood of much of the Thai population.

While the frontline healthcare workers have worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 crisis, the early responses from the political leadership left much to be desired, and has at times made their work more difficult. Unlike those in Taiwan or Hong Kong, the Thai government was initially reluctant to control international travel or close its border to international travelers, including those from China, apparently for fear of losing tourism business. In January, Anutin Charnvirakul, the Minister of Public Health attempted to make light of the disease, saying it’s just a common cold, but then in February, realizing how serious the pandemic was, he backpedaled, admitting the gravity of the situation. Several public relations disasters soon followed, including the minister blasting a foreign tourist for refusing a surgical mask handed out by him during a PR campaign to promote hygiene. Later, the minister, using harsh words, criticized a senior doctor for attending a party after returning from overseas, causing public uproar. Jurin Laksanawisit, the Minister of Commerce, was slow to regulate the surgical masks market to prevent hoarding and mass exports, resulting in shortages even in hospitals. It was later revealed on the popular Facebook Page of Mam Pho Dam that a man connected to the ruling Palang Pracharath Party was involved with the hoarding of surgical masks, causing another public uproar. To add insult to an injury, the whistleblower, the administrator of the Facebook Page, was later threatened with prosecution for spreading fake news and defamation1.

By early March, the Thai government still did not impose restrictions on large public gatherings or international travel. On 6 March, a Thai boxing event was held at a military-owned Lumpinee Stadium, with nearly 5,000 a large crowd of spectators packed in a small stadium. On 16 March, Matthew Dean, the boxing event announcer revealed that he was infected with COVID-19, along with his wife who has apparently contracted it from him. This revelation prompted large-scale testing of the spectators who were at the boxing match who came from all over the country, and they were later confirmed to be the largest cluster of infection in Thailand. The government’s refusal to control international travel also led to another large cluster of cases connected to Muslims from the southern provinces who attended religious gatherings in Malaysia2 and Indonesia3. Only by late March did the government announce the emergency decree to systematically control the spread of COVID-19, including international travel.

For Thais seeking leadership and assurance from the Prime Minister, little would come from his listless speech, announcing the emergency decree that came into effect on 26 March. Under the emergency decree, which is still in force, the schools, universities, restaurants, shopping malls, sports facilities, etc. were closed, and a curfew from 22:00 to 4:00 was imposed from 26 March to 30 April. During the lockdown, most government officials have had to work-from-home, but private employers were only requested to do so. Anticipating no employment in the foreseeable future, many migrant workers fled Bangkok for their hometowns, crowding public transport terminals, stoking fear of spreading infection to other parts of the country. Songkran holidays, the Thai New Year festival between 13-15 April, were canceled, and the lucrative period for the tourism industry was lost. With the loss of employment in the all-important service sector, many families were unable to put food on the table. Again, the government’s relief was too little too late. A group of scholars from Chiangmai and Chulalongkorn Universities reported spikes in attempted suicides attributable to the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. At the time of this writing, the state of emergency, including lighter lockdown restrictions, has been extended until June 30, prompting accusations by critics that the government has abused it to shut down anti-government protests.

The government’s incoherent policy has made the lives of Thai citizens abroad who wished to return to Thailand difficult as well. When the outbreak occurred in China, the Thai government was slow to dispatch flights to evacuate Thai expats, while countries like Japan and the US, acted swiftly, sending in chartered flights to evacuate their citizens soon after the first sign of the outbreak. The spread of COVID-19 in South Korea in February caused many illegal Thai workers, derogatorily referred to as “Peenoi,” to plead for the help from the government to repatriate, drawing criticism from many middle-class Thais who have a low opinion of these immigrant workers. After the emergency decree came into force, returning Thai citizens faced yet more obstacles in addition to the few travel options available. The authority required all returning Thais by air travel to obtain a fit-to-fly certificate from a doctor, indeed a challenge in many countries where the medical systems were strained to the limit. Thai citizens flocked to Thai embassies overseas to seek help to obtain the certificate, exposing themselves to infection. In early April, the government also suddenly required a state quarantine for all inbound air travelers without communicating with them first. The preparation of the state quarantine at the airport was not yet organized for those passengers arriving in the first flights after the announcement. Health checkups after the immigration procedure, ground transport, and the quarantine facilities were unorganized, causing widespread dissatisfaction by frustrated passengers who had to wait for several hours without any information. Somehow, 152 passengers managed to evade the procedure and returned home, and those who were patient enough to proceed to the crowded quarantine facilities found themselves sharing a room with two or three complete strangers. As time passed, the authority seemed to become familiar with the quarantine procedure, and state-quarantine facilities were contracted to the many hotels which had been empty of guests. In late May, however, some of these hotel contractors went public with accusations of corruption by government officials who sought bribes from hotel owners in exchange for the contract to use the hotel as quarantine facilities. The government has denied any involvement, but the investigation by the police is still ongoing.

The restrictions on international travel, public gatherings, and curfews affected large and small businesses and blue-collar workers, especially those in the tourism industry. Yet, in early March, one of the first government’s policy proposed by Somkid Jatusripitak was the stock rescue fund to support the Thai stock market that plunged due to investors’ lack of confidence. Help for the working class in informal sectors, the 5,000 baht (US$ 160) cash handout program for three months, would come later, in mid-April, with several problems. The prime minister first said that there would be enough budget to pay for the scheme for only a month, but reversed his position the next day. Several complications followed, ranging from the technical difficulties of the online application platform, erroneous eligibility screening, and fraudulent claims. The government’s relief programs for SME are limited to a loan payment holiday and tax deadline extension. The meager relief measures by the government may arguably be caused by its unwillingness to expand its public debt. Its priority seemed to rest more on the huge investment on the government’s pet projects, the Thai-Chinese High-Speed Rail and the Eastern Economic Corridor. While the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces talked of cutting the defense budget, the procurement of two Chinese submarines of questionable necessity that requires a huge budget would still go ahead.

Thailand’s exceptional public health system, propped up by strong bureaucrats in the Ministry of Public Health, is one of the few bright spots in this whole COVID-19 pandemic. The performance of the current leadership in handling COVID-19, including its heavy-handed approach to control the spread of the disease and its relief programs for mitigating the impact of the measures, left many Thais from all political spectrum deeply unsatisfied. Sooner or later, the COVID-19 pandemic will subside and a call for accountability will follow, and anti-government protests temporarily suppressed in the name of COVID-19 will surely resume. Given the great length that those currently in power went to acquire and hold on to their positions, prolonged political struggles seemed unavoidable. As for Thai people who would suffer from the economic recession post-Covid, the Buddhist motto that most Thais know well is ton pen tee peung hang ton (ตนเป็นที่พึ่งแห่งตน). This is roughly equivalent to “God helps those who help themselves” and should remind them not to expect assistance from an undemocratic, incompetent establishment led by the self-proclaimed “good” people, who care more for the rich and the powerful than ordinary people.

 

8 June, 2020

 

 

Citation

Anonymous. 2020. “COVID-19 response in Thailand” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.