How a Thai-style govt fails in the face of a crisis
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How a Thai-style govt fails in the face of a crisis

Through the ultra-fine dust pollution and coronavirus outbreak, our "Thai-style" administration has been put to the test. The results are disappointing.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday tried to allay growing fears about the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 80 people and spread around the globe. He insisted the government is in control of the situation. Aircraft are on standby to bring Thais from virus-hit Wuhan back home if there is a request and China gives its permission.

Probably in haste to show off his foresight, the PM said he had ordered preparations for evacuation flights a month ago.

That would indicate the PM were a clairvoyant as Chinese authorities only managed to identify the mysterious infection as a novel virus from the corona family three weeks previously on Jan 7 while cases were confirmed outside China only about two weeks ago.

The PM's boast is a minor lapse compared to the major confusion among the public caused by his government's lacklustre response to the health threat.

PM Gen Prayut said yesterday that centres will soon be established to disseminate information to the public. This is too late. The first case of Wuhan coronavirus in Thailand, also the first outside of China, was reported on Jan 13. That was two weeks ago.

If PM Gen Prayut really had the evacuation plan in mind as early as a month ago, he should have set up a war room, information centres and hotlines for the public two weeks ago, not tomorrow.

If the government had any idea how to handle an epidemic, it would have known that it's crucial to control the flow of information. As a disease spreads, fear grows and misinformation follows along with public panic. Once that happens, it makes it much more difficult to handle the situation.

This is evident in confusion over whether thermal scanners were installed at airports for incoming tourists. Reports came out late last week that the scanners were removed after China cancelled all flights from Wuhan. The news prompted a public outcry as by that time the virus had spread to other areas in China as well as Hong Kong and countries in Europe.

Instead of using an official channel to clearly state what scanning measures are in place for what flights, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul took to his Facebook page to ask what was the point of keeping the equipment for Wuhan flights when China had cancelled them.

The minister also nagged at complainants: "Exercise your brain and think a bit before criticising."

His post attracted an avalanche of criticism, mainly that the minister should have known that the coronavirus need not come only from Wuhan. Eventually, the Department of Disease Control came out to ensure that strict scanning is still maintained at airports for flights from places where the infection has been reported.

That did not stop Minister Anutin. Probably in a rush to calm people down, Mr Anutin gave an interview on Sunday saying he personally viewed the novel coronavirus infection as "a kind of common cold".

The minister shouldn't forget that the virus is much more serious, with fatalities estimated at 3% to 5% whereas the common cold is typically not deadly at all.

The government's shortcomings in handling the Wuhan outbreak are repeats of its incompetence when faced with ultra-fine dust pollution. It seems out of touch with the situation. It does not understand the nature of the problem. It banks its trust on a cumbersome bureaucratic system which has proven ineffectual in normal situations time and again, let alone in a time of crisis.

Without the brainpower to comprehend the complexity of these new threats or the courage to break away from dysfunctional norms to come up with more effective solutions, the government is stuck paying lip service with superficial measures. Installing so-called giant air purifiers in open spaces such as at Victory Monument in the hope the air will become cleaner is among the most ridiculous actions a government has ever taken.

When pressed yesterday about the government's preparedness for the coronavirus, PM Gen Prayut reverted to his same old script, that he had given all the necessary instructions and relevant ministries are working in coordination.

He said the government does not need to inform the public what it is working on all the time. That simply summed up how the PM has missed the whole point. When faced with a spreading, novel disease, information is first and foremost. A level of alertness is crucial as new data is expected to emerge every day while experts scramble to contain the infection.

As the world braces for a possible pandemic, the Thai public are told to prepare for something like a common cold. Isn't that sick?

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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