Practical recovery strategy needed

Practical recovery strategy needed

The arrival of about 400 vaccinated international travellers in Phuket on Thursday was something to celebrate for people on the hard-hit resort island. They were the first visitors from abroad in 15 months.

But the celebrations were muted in light of the severe toll the coronavirus is taking on other parts of Thailand. On Friday alone, new daily cases reached a record 6,087 -- more than 2,200 of them in Bangkok alone -- with 61 deaths, also a record.

And just the night before the inauguration of the much-touted "Phuket Sandbox" scheme, Songkhla province in the Deep South imposed a 30-day curfew, prompted by a spike in new infections which 272 cases reported on Thursday, along with 180 in Pattani and 136 in Yala.

Of greater concern is the growing presence of the highly contagious Delta variant, first detected in India. It is expected to become dominant in the next few months, the Department of Medical Sciences (DMS) warned last Monday.

But to me, it is even more frustrating that hospitals in Bangkok are running out of beds and personnel to accommodate new cases, particularly those in critical condition.

And while authorities keep sending confusing messages about the adequacy of beds, some major public hospitals in Bangkok have stopped Covid testing because they are running out of beds.

Clear proof of the growing bed shortage is the recommendation by the DMS that asymptomatic patients isolate at home. They will be given a thermometer and an oximeter to monitor their condition and be put on favipiravir antiviral medication if needed. It issued the message partly to calm public anger amid reports of people dying of Covid at home due to a shortage of hospital beds.

Equally frustrating is the government's handling of the latest curbs in Bangkok. On June 25 the prime minister announced that 575 construction camps, a source of dozens of Covid clusters, would be shut for a month.

But the order did not take effect until June 28, giving workers two days to flee the capital. Many did, and now authorities are predicting a rise in Covid cases in their home provinces.

Then out of the blue at midnight the following day, the government announced a one-month shutdown of dine-in services at restaurants in Bangkok and five surrounding provinces. Shopping mall closing times were pushed back to 9pm and gatherings of more than 20 people banned.

Restaurant operators were totally blindsided, given that many had already stocked ingredients for dine-in service for the coming days.

Some senior doctors and business leaders have said a full lockdown of the capital for at least seven days would have been more effective. But those in charge of Covid policy say the curbs they have chosen should be sufficient and would avoid worse economic fallout.

I think most of us agree that the restrictions are needed and are ready to comply, but the timing and implementation need to be much better thought out in order to avoid hurting those directly affected.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Phuket, where it is hoped the sandbox project will prove that travel to and within the country is safe. By mid-October, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said, it is his goal for all Thais to have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine and for the entire country to be open to foreign travellers again.

Gen Prayut aims to vaccinate 10 million people a month from July and has ordered 105.5 million doses for this year, more than the country's target.

I would say that setting a target is not wrong, and in fact is vital for leaders seeking to steer the country out of a crisis. But the target should be practical and achievable.

As of Friday, about 10.2 million people or 15% of the population had received at least one dose of vaccine, and only 2.8 million or 4.3% had received two doses.

So while daily cases continue to surge, the priority should be accelerating vaccinations with achievable targets, and having adequate hospital beds available. Otherwise, public frustration and anger will certainly grow against the government and that won't do the country any good at all.

Of course, we should look forward to a better future but the most important issue is today. When people are so desperate about either their health or the economy or both, how can they foresee the better future politicians keep promising to bring?

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