As fears over the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak grip the entire country, the other gravely serious threats to health, such as the lingering ultra-fine PM2.5 dust in the North, seem to have slipped from the state's attention. This shouldn't be the case.
Locals, as well as visitors to some provinces in the North, such as Chiang Mai, have over the past few days protested against the high levels of PM2.5, fine dust particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter, in the air that continues to harm their health.
This hazardous smog has become a seasonal pollution staple in the North for nearly a decade now.
According to local reports, dust levels in Chiang Mai on Friday peaked at 535 microgrammes per cubic metre (μg/m³), making it the world's most polluted city -- a title that does not bring Thailand any pride. The country's supposed "safe limit" of 50μg/m³ is already twice the international equivalent.
While dust-related pollution in Bangkok has improved this month due to more favourable weather conditions, smog still blankets large parts of the northern region. Chiang Mai's Muang, Omkoi, Chiang Dao and Mae Chaem districts all featured on a list of regional hotspots over the weekend.
In fact, dust patterns in the northern region have remained relatively unchanged from last year, with smog expected to linger until late this month or early next month in several areas.
This stagnation demonstrates how state mechanisms are failing the nation and how little senior government figures care about the problem.
During his recent trip to Chiang Mai, Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul seemed more concerned with making racist comments about Westerners ignoring face masks amid concerns over the Covid-19 outbreak than paying serious attention to the horrendous air pollution despite boisterous complaints about the issue.
Initially, local authorities blamed widespread forest fires for the smog.
Chiang Mai governor Charoenrit Sanguansat, who is also head of the anti-dust task force of the province, told local media that there were 683 forest fire hotspots in the province on Friday.
More than half of those fires occurred in conservation forests, while Omkoi had the highest number of forest fires with 108. He said the province has sought help from state agencies, especially the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, to extinguish the blazes.
It is apparent the state remains well behind the curve with its predictably passive approach to tackling the problem.
Rather than rushing to put out fires that have already started, more sophisticated forms of prevention must be implemented.
Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist and conservationist who lives in Chiang Mai, told this newspaper yesterday that weak law enforcement remains a key reason as to why the smog shows no signs of abating.
Incentives, such as a state subsidy for agricultural machinery, as well as education, are of utmost necessity if the authorities want farmers to change the way they get rid of farm waste.
The doctor said the use of heavy machines will enable farmers to embrace more environmentally friendly methods of doing away with farm debris.
However, without support, most farmers will continue to believe burning is the cheapest way to clear their land, which is not true.
The doctor said there are social aspects that make the issue even more complicated.
"Some farmlands are located in forest reserves, and the authorities said they are not able to offer subsidies for farm machinery to those farmers as their farmland status is not legal," said the doctor, whose strenuous conservation campaign is now gaining wide public recognition.
All anyone can do under these circumstances currently is put out the fires.
Dr Rungsrit also noted Chiang Mai authorities have introduced the Mae Chaem model which is designed to help villagers abandon the mono-crop planting cycle that ends with open burning.
However, he said, the scale of the project appears to be too small to make an impact at the moment. He said while it is known that smog is transboundary, and farmers in neighbouring countries also burn farm waste, there is no efficient mechanism to cope with the problem of a regional level.
More needs to be done to address the issue within an Asean framework, although little effort has been made so far, he said.
Meanwhile, more collaboration between different agencies is needed to tackle smog in Chiang Mai and other provinces in the North, and the government and policymakers must acknowledge that PM2.5 dust, while not causing sudden death, is a serious long-term blight on the health of the nation which must be urgently addressed.