Communication key to fighting virus

Communication key to fighting virus

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visits Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute on March 10.  (Picture courtesy of Government House)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visits Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute on March 10.  (Picture courtesy of Government House)

Covid-19 has already claimed its biggest victim in Thailand -- the government itself. Since the outbreak began 10 weeks ago, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has displayed varying degrees of complacency and incompetence. Worse still, the prime minister seems to lack the understanding that in times of crisis, the country needs a clear direction.

Despite all the rhetoric, Gen Prayut and his political team have failed to act in an intelligent and coordinated manner to boost public confidence.

As it seems that the coronavirus pandemic will continue for some time -- for months, perhaps even years to come -- there is an urgent need for the government to adopt a fresh perspective to cope with existing and future challenges. Otherwise, it could further fuel distrust in the current government and its coalition partners, thus negatively affecting the country's half-baked democracy.

Gen Prayut could actually use this crisis as an opportunity to enhance confidence in his failing administration.

Looking back, in the first two weeks of the epidemic, right after China decided to lock down Wuhan to prevent the further spread of the virus on Jan 23, the government seemed to be on top of things. When all of the attention turned to Thailand because it was the No.1 destination for Chinese tourists, local media continued to praise the preparedness of the Thai healthcare system.

Indeed, Thailand is well-equipped to combat contagious diseases, and has done so successfully in the past, during the Sars and Mers outbreaks. At that time, the public was highly confident that Thailand would overcome the contagions.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul became a superhero overnight. He was everywhere -- donning a white shirt with the easy-to-recognise logo of his ministry. He was seen giving instructions to government ministries and agencies about the steps to be taken, because Gen Prayut had yet to recover from the shooting madness in Korat.

Mr Anutin was seen going to various public places to distribute masks but he eventually took it too far -- his Good Samaritan act backfired and caused consternation among visiting tourists. At one point, he publicly criticised foreigners he encountered at Siam BTS station for not wearing masks, singling out the ones who turned down the masks he was handing out. He badmouthed them, saying they "should be sent back to their respective countries". At that time, there were perhaps three dozen confirmed cases, and the one Covid-19 related death had yet to occur.

Slowly, it became clear the next battle would be fought on two fronts. First, authorities had to contain local transmission of the virus. That was easy, as any potentially infected persons here could be quickly examined, given the country's network of public and private hospitals.

The problem, however, rests with the second group -- Thais returning from abroad.

At first, authorities didn't pay much attention to them, as they were busy dealing with foreign tourists stuck on the Westerdam cruise ship. But overnight, Thais returning from Covid-19 affected places -- Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea -- were quickly identified as the problem.

Initially, local authorities thought that they had the situation under control, as these tourists were screened at airports. This, as it turns out, wasn't the case. The government, in fact, had no idea how to handle the returnees. Worse still, some returnees lied about their travel history, while a few others simply walked out of the airport. Social media went wild, with users distributing photographs updates and even photographs of those who skipped screening.

As February progressed, senior politicians including Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit did what they do best -- showing up and expressing concern whenever and wherever they could to score political points. They visited hospitals and had their photos taken with protective masks on. Meanwhile, none of these officials were aware that the Thai healthcare system was being overstretched and a severe shortage of surgical masks was looming.

Reports about hoarding of masks by those connected to influential politicians then surfaced on the evening news. At this point, not only did the government fail to give a clear explanation about the shortage of this essential protective gear, they also forgot about the next wave of Thai returnees -- from South Korea.

The government was well-prepared when it brought Thais back from Wuhan in January. However, when nearly 350 Thai workers based in South Korea appealed to come home, the government was caught off-guard. Since some of them were illegal workers -- phi noi or "little ghosts" -- they naturally tried to avoid any contact with Korean and Thai authorities in Daegu where they worked or at entry points in Thailand, fearing prosecution. The first week of March saw a complete lack of coordination in terms of screening and surveillance, not to mention overall understanding of the danger of contagion among the Thai authorities, especially at entry points and designated quarantine areas.

In contrast, the estimated 8,200 Vietnamese workers in Daegu were told to stay there because Korean authorities were doing a good job containing and screening infected individuals and, as a result, received proper treatment. Thai workers could have been given similar protection. They would have remained calm had they received proper instructions from the Thai government.

The past 10 weeks point to one pivotal failing of the Prayut government, that is, the lack of an effective communication strategy.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has appeared twice on TV to assure the public and provide updates on the coronavirus situation since the crisis began in January. His statements were right to the point, without any of the pep talks of which Thai leaders are especially fond of. He told Singaporeans to be prepared for the worst, as the pandemic could be around for some time. But Singaporeans can rest assured that their government will be with them, and they will overcome this crisis together.

Last week, however, did bring some welcome news. On March 10, the cabinet approved the set-up of a new centre to deal exclusively with the Covid-19 pandemic at Government House's Santi Maitree building. Gen Prayut is chairing the new unit, which serves as a command centre for all matters relating to the virus. It is a good idea to have a clear direction from a single authority in times of crisis, as it helps eliminate mixed messages and contradictory remarks from senior officials, some of whom have the tendency to speak without knowing the facts and the latest updates.

From now on, the centre's most important task is to instil trust and confidence in the government. Indeed, the most suitable person to do this noble task is Sukhum Kanchanapimai, permanent secretary of the Public Health Ministry, as he can handle questions pertaining to Covid-19 with facts and figures. He has never lost his temper with reporters, is soft-spoken and has a sincere disposition which adds confidence to his answers without any pretence.

For the time being, the prime minister and other senior officials should keep their mouths shut and let the professionals do their jobs.

Dr Sukhum should be the key person to provide daily updates on the situation. Through him, the government can assure the public that the country has all the facilities and knowledge to handle the current pandemic, so that they can remain calm and go about their daily lives.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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