Govt response has been mind-boggling
Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul went ballistic against Western tourists once again, probably out of stress from his heavy responsibility in containing the Covid-19 spread.
In his Tweet, he wrote that, during his recent visit to Chiang Mai, he saw most farang tourists did not wear face masks. These farang are dirty and do not often shower, he warned, and he advised Thais to stay away from them for their safety's sake.
Earlier, Mr Anutin, on his Facebook page, said Western tourists who do not wear face masks in public should be kicked out of Thailand if they refused the face masks he gave them.
His comment drew a fierce backlash, prompting him to close his page and stop communicating with netizens on social media until, a few days ago, he tweeted to complain again about farang tourists.
Mr Anutin's apparent obsession with face masks as an effective tool to prevent the spread of coronavirus and protect oneself from contracting the virus is misleading.
Health officials have maintained that ordinary healthy people do not need to wear the masks unless they are in a crowded, enclosed area. This advice is also designed to ensure there are enough masks for people who need them most such as medical personnel on the frontline and those who are physically weak.
Unlike Thais, most farang tourists do not wear face masks because they are complying with the advice of health officials. And they are right. Mr Anutin should change his xenophobic attitude, as all such statements achieve is to harm the image of Thailand and deter prospective tourists.
The health minister should have vented his frustration about the shortage of face masks among medics directly at the Ministry of Commerce and, in particular, the Internal Trade Department (ITD), which is responsible for making sure there are enough face masks to meet domestic demand.
The Ministry of Commerce and the ITD have failed shamefully in their responsibility. They have been working in their ivory tower, insisting there are enough face masks while medical personnel and people in general are complaining they cannot find any in retail outlets such as convenience stores and pharmacies.
In the meantime, plenty of face masks are available for sale online at inflated prices. It is only recently that these online traders have faced crackdowns by police and ITD officials.
A few days ago, an insane story came to light about the ITD related to the Pharmacy Association's complaint that it has never received its share of face masks from the department as claimed.
The department promised to provide face masks to the association for distribution to its members for onsale to the public on the condition they apologise to its director-general, Vichai Pochanakit, first.
What is so unbelievable about the ITD and the Central Committee on Pricing of Products and Services, which is under the Commerce Ministry, is that while there is a serious shortage of face masks at home, the committee has quietly lifted the ban on the export of face masks, even if exporters must seek prior approval from the committee's secretary-general who is also director-general of the ITD.
The incompetency of failing to ensure a sufficient supply of face masks to meet domestic demand while, in the meantime, allowing exports of the masks to resume is, indeed, mind-boggling and warrants a big cleanup in the department. (Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Sunday issued an order to transfer Mr Vichai, the director-general, to work under the Office of the Prime Minister.)
Inconsistency and flip-flopping in decision-making on the part of the government as it battles to contain the spread of the virus clearly demonstrates indecisive leadership and poor management of crisis situations. Here are two examples:
Late last month, a meeting chaired by the prime minister agreed to designate 11 countries and two territories as dangerous infectious disease (DID) zones.
A few days after, only four countries and two territories were designated as high-risk zones in the Royal Gazette. No explanation was given for the change by the government spokeswoman or the newly-created Covid-19 information centre.
And the sudden backdown on the decision to keep Thai workers returning from South Korea in state quarantine facilities, with the returnees now being allowed to self-quarantine under the watchful eyes of local officials. This is a big gamble by the government with public safety at stake.
Honestly, I do not trust all returnees will observe the quarantine measure. Thais are notorious for breaking laws when enforcement is lax. You will see what I mean if you go out on to a busy road intersection and see how many motorcyclists jump the red light.
The World Health Organization has declared Europe the new epicentre of the outbreak. So when will the government designate more European countries as DID zones?
We all know that new Covid-19 cases are caused by returning Thais and travellers from high-risk countries and the logical means to stop or reduce new infections is to close the borders to these people or to make it harder for them to enter Thailand to allow health officials to focus on infected cases and suspected cases at home.
Otherwise, the Public Health Ministry will keep counting new infected cases on a daily basis until the situation reaches Stage 3 -- when the virus spreads rapidly to considerable numbers of people at the community level. We are yet to see decisive government leadership from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.