Covid-19 confusion risks doom for govt
With the Covid-19 outbreak slowly getting out of hand, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government is experiencing a crisis of confidence. State agencies tasked with disease control have been underperforming, a testament to a lack of unity and policy direction. The government has failed to clearly communicate with the people, and that has been intensifying public confusion. The worst part is that there is speculation that some public figures have been shamefully cashing in on the situation. An investigation is underway to prove if those in the face-mask hoarding racket have connections with someone in the cabinet.
The past few days have seen escalating fears of Thailand entering Stage 3, with a dramatic increase in accumulated cases. Yet the government is insisting, as always, that everything is under control. But is it really?
The country is already in disarray, despite the government claiming to be in Stage 2. All prospects for proper control were doomed when the WHO declared that Covid-19 is now a pandemic, given that the number of infected people has surpassed 135,000 with nearly 5,000 deaths in 128 countries. It is believed that this situation will haunt us for a while, especially since this outbreak has not just damaged the domestic economy but also that of the world. Remedying this situation will certainly take a long time.
The Prayut government has been dealt with blows ever since the first coronavirus case was reported in Thailand. It remains to be seen if it can survive this fresh malady in the wake of crumbling public confidence.
The first wrong step the government took was to give the outbreak's economic impact greater priority instead of focusing on public safety. This explains why it has been avoiding strong measures from the very beginning. If that is not enough, it hatched a plan to launch 2,000 baht cash handouts, while ignoring more important measures such as ensuring there are enough face masks for those in need, as well as tackling hoarders and profiteers.
Flawed communication among quite a few top figures has also been deepening the confusion. What is said in the morning becomes a different story in the afternoon, while indecision on quarantine centres and groundless rumours are just adding to public hysteria.
What makes things worse is the lack of unity in the government, which means each party is moving on its own. For instance, the Democrat-controlled Commerce Ministry is tasked with taking care of face masks, the Health Ministry under Bhumjaithai has to combat the contagion, Palang Pracharath is supposed to oversee the financial measures, while the Interior Ministry under Gen Anupong Paojinda has jurisdiction over local administration agencies. However, every party has been passing the buck and blaming each other for shortcomings.
The problems came to a peak when several thousand undocumented workers wanted to return home from South Korea, a Covid-19 hotspot. The authorities were not properly prepared to deal with the exodus, which resulted in some workers slipping past screening checks at the airport. This disarray and confusion resulted in Suvarnabhumi airport's general manager, who also oversees the Emergency Operation Centre, abruptly resigning.
Bickering among officials at different agencies, ie the high-profile duel between the Internal Trade Department under the Commerce Ministry and the Customs Department under Finance Ministry over face masks, has further tarnished the government's image and, needless to say, the people are now quite fed up.
The conflict-ridden Prayut administration is like a sinking ship. However, the timing of the rift cannot have been more unfortunate, especially since this is when a strong administration is needed to deal with the crisis as the damage caused by the pandemic is enormous and will take time to ease. People, instead, are finding themselves trapped in fear of infection as well as the fear of losing their jobs due to the economic slowdown.
Under such circumstances, even those who support Gen Prayut have turned away. Apart from the challenge of Covid-19, the government has to face challenges from the opposition and pro-democracy elements outside parliament that are working to knock him off the country's top seat. Now, rumours are brewing about a change in the administration, a coup, a cabinet rejig or even the PM's resignation. What Gen Prayut's administration needs to do right now is to heal the political rift and restore public confidence so it can effectively handle the Covid-19 crisis.
It should be noted that boisterous calls are emerging for a "national government" or an administration comprising all political factions -- a development known in the local context as "political set zero". That kind of government formation is possible in line with the charter's Section 272. Some are also demanding the pardon of all political leaders.
In order to form such an all-party administration, the charter requires at least half of the MPs and the Senate to petition the House Speaker to scrap political parties' PM nominations and pave the way for an outside, non-partisan PM. It also requires two-thirds of the Lower House and the Senate to endorse a new PM who can have high-calibre people join the new government and help restore public confidence.
This new all-party government should also make amending the constitution its mission. Once the new charter is in place, it should call a new election.
As for the immediate task of dealing with Covid-19, the PM needs to revamp related agencies, boost efficiency and clean up the mess, including graft allegations. He needs to be aware of the situation and do what he can to restore confidence so he can maintain his political mandate.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.