Virus response highlights govt incompetence

Virus response highlights govt incompetence

Is it possible that the seeming inability of Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to put a face mask on properly on a few occasions is a sign that the government is crumbling against the coronavirus outbreak?

The first time he was seen wearing one with its strap twisted. After that, the premier donned a mask without pulling it up to cover his nose. Both ways mean the mask would not fit properly, thus becoming ineffective as protection.

More importantly, however, people wondered what's wrong with the PM? Did he not know anything about the face mask, or epidemic? Or did he not care?

The coronavirus outbreak and PM2.5 microdust pollution have hit the Prayut government hard, much harder than anything else during the past five years.

The hashtags #LousyGovernment and the crueller #RIPPrayuth are testaments to how low the government's popularity has plunged. Everything that the government has said or done seems to be wrong.

The PM in particular took one hit after another with his seemingly uninformed comments. He first sparked off criticism when he said that no Thais living in the virus' epicentre of Wuhan had made a request to return home.

It's a strange observation insofar as it seems to contradict common sense. At that time, China already had the whole city locked down. Public transport was limited, so was food. Why would anyone want to stay on in the virus-infected area, especially foreigners?

Gen Prayut has been described as a social media addict. If he had followed the feeds, he would have realised that a number of those Thai students in Wuhan had complained about food shortages and asked the government to help them to return to Thailand. These messages were widely spread on social media. If the PM was as savvy as he was said to be, he would not have missed them.

Another possibility would be he didn't miss them but was putting on a spin to persuade the public that his government had not been slow to respond.

This attempt to take credit where there was none to be taken was accentuated by his boasting that he had ordered an evacuation plan more than a month ago. The puffed-up claim became the butt of jokes as the Thais in Wuhan remain stuck there in the epicentre.

As more and more countries, not just superpowers like Japan and the United States, but neighbours like Myanmar managed to bring their citizens home, the PM's statements returned to strike him like boomerangs.

Even Thai Airways was rounded on in the backlash against the government; unfairly, it would seem, when it turned out that Air Asia will be offering its evacuation flight for free. The reason was practical as Air Asia already has a landing licence in Wuhan. Still, public sentiment seems to be set so strongly against the "lousy government" that condemnation of THAI rages on.

The PM set Twitter on fire again when he blocked a proposal to cancel visas on arrival for Chinese travellers coming from areas affected by the coronavirus for fear the move will have a negative impact on the economy.

"Are we ready to take care of ourselves?" "What if so many people become infected and no more tourists want to visit Thailand? What will happen to the economy?" were some of the milder tweets under the lousy-government theme.

Without an effective public communications strategy, the government's other measures including a plan to offer free health insurance against coronavirus infection for foreign travellers and to offer giveaways to them under a new phase of the Chim Shop Chai scheme further fuelled public anger. More and more people took to social media to express resentment that the government seems to care more about the Chinese government and tourists than it does about its own people.

The government's incompetence is evident even in things that shouldn't have been a problem at all. As the outbreak continues, it's only natural that face masks and alcohol gel would become scarce and more expensive.

Instead of taking care of this predictable and preventable trend, the government keeps saying that there are enough supplies of face masks and "begged" merchants not to hoard and overcharge consumers for the products.

Anybody who can't readily access face masks, as government figures probably can, would know that the commodity has become impossible to buy, while those that are available are more than twice the recommended price. This relatively simple case has laid bare the government's impotence and zero sense of public service, how it carries on business as usual and pays lip service to a serious health threat.

It seems like that might be a tall order for a government that can't ensure sufficient face masks are available to protect us against this epidemic.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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