Govt opts for coronavirus middle road
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Govt opts for coronavirus middle road

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, left, demonstrates how to wear a face mask as a guard against the coronovirus and PM2.5 dust at Government House last week as Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, right, looks on. CHANAT KATANYU
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, left, demonstrates how to wear a face mask as a guard against the coronovirus and PM2.5 dust at Government House last week as Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, right, looks on. CHANAT KATANYU

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has come under heavy criticism from critics for doing too little too slowly to handle the serious health threat posed by novel coronavirus 2019, now declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a global health emergency.

A well-known Thai TV commentator, who last September accused Swedish celebrity climate campaigner Greta Thunberg of being a publicity seeker brainwashed by environment groups, called for the prime minister's resignation for the government's incompetency in coping with the coronavirus.

He said the government should have suspended all flights to and from the Chinese city of Wuhan where the outbreak originated and asked why the government had only has just thought of suspending visas on arrival for Chinese tourists.

Other critics slammed the government for being too slow to evacuate Thais, including several students, trapped in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Several countries, including the US and Japan, have denied entries to all Chinese from China and foreign visitors who had been in China for the past two weeks to prevent the spread of the pathogen on their soil amid a WHO recommendation of stringent screening at border crossings.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering information sharing and medical supply chains and hurting the economy.

Shutting down the border to all arrivals from China would save the government the trouble of mobilising medical personnel at airports and other border crossings to screen arriving Chinese tourists and other foreigners coming from China, admittedly without any regard for the impact on the tourism sector.

Tourism is the only economic engine working although sputtering from the sharp fall in Chinese arrivals since the Chinese government imposed a travel ban on Chinese tour groups and discouraged Chinese individuals from travelling abroad.

Denying entry to all Chinese arrivals as being done in the US -- even temporarily --will shut down the sputtering tourism sector at a time when Thailand is reeling from an export slump and facing its worst drought in many years. The full impact of the drought has yet to be assessed.

Obviously, the government has chosen a more cautious path in coping with the virus situation. It can be accused of gambling on the safety of Thais for the sake of the economy and good relations with China.

Is it dangerous to endanger public safety in favour of economic benefits?

One part of the answer can be found in the statistics. So far, there have been only 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Thailand, comprising one Thai taxi driver and the rest Chinese. Some have already returned home and the rest are being treated in hospital.

No fatalities have been recorded in Thailand yet, out of a total of about 200,000 Chinese tourists still in the country and an average of about one million who visit Thailand each month -- including some 20,000 from Wuhan.

With these figures, it can be assumed the stringent preventive measures taken by the government have been effective in containing the virus, at least for now. Viewed in his way, accusing the government of not doing enough and not fast enough is overreacting.

If the government is to be criticised, it should be blamed for its complacency and incompetence in handling of air pollution caused by ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particulate matter. Thank god that PM2.5 does not kill like the coronavirus, or many Bangkokians would have already been dead by now.

The government's failures are even more glaring given the continued and widespread burning of sugarcane fields which has caused PM2.5 dust to rise.

The government can also be blamed for its handling of the economy, which is like a ship without a rudder and is skewed in favour of big business.

Promises to fight corruption in the bureaucracy and reforms of the state sector have been proven to be mere rhetoric. Double standards are increasingly becoming the norm while the prime minister has turned a blind eye to those surrounding him.

For the government, the past year in office has been a big letdown. It has also given the opposition a lot of ammunition to launch attacks in the upcoming censure debate, depending on how smart and eloquent the opposition MPs are in dispensing the fireworks.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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