Thailand needs firmer Covid-19 action
While being on the right track, the government's latest response to the new coronavirus (Covid-19) by closing schools and entertainment venues, as well as putting off the Songkran break, is likely to prove too little, too late, once again. As other countries have shown, the sooner firm and hard measures are put in place, the better and likelier efforts to contain and remedy Covid-19 will be successful. An early global lesson from the fast-spreading virus is to be pre-emptive and pro-active, "front-loading" the pain of social adjustments and economic damages rather than playing catch-up and ultimately paying a higher price.
Back when Covid-19 began its global assault, Thailand was the first country outside China to report a case. It was on Jan 13, when a woman arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and ground zero of what is now a global pandemic. Over the next several weeks, Chinese authorities placed Wuhan and much of Hubei province under strict quarantine, with restrictions on travel and movement all over the country. While the rest of the world was still nonchalant, China's "shock therapy" seemed overly drastic at the time, as economic conditions from the local bourse to growth forecasts headed south. But by early March, China's number of infections and death toll stabilised and had been brought under control while many countries around the world are now going into a tailspin over Covid-19.
Yet China is not alone in staying on top of Covid-19. Governments and leaders of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore also have been commended for being up front with their citizens from day one, imposing travel restrictions, tracing and tracking infections to stem a wider outbreak. Unsurprisingly, due to their lack of such leadership, Thais have translated some of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's public remarks and approaches in dealing with Covid-19 into the Thai language and circulated them on social media.
Over the same period, different state agencies and ministers in charge of what to do in Thailand squabbled and bickered. The Thai authorities took several weeks after the Wuhan outbreak to stop flights to and from the Hubei capital. Different ministers offered different views and responses on Covid-19 management before a list of at-risk countries was finally drawn up. Yet Thailand's two main airports in Bangkok stayed more or less open to travellers from all stripes, while quarantine safeguards were unclear. Even the handling of face masks became embroiled in profiteering and racketeering, apparently involving official corruption and graft at a time when Thais faced a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis.
As the central government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha lost the plot, it is unsurprising that Uthai Thani and Buri Ram provinces have boldly gone into self-imposed lockdowns. This move reflects the incompetence of the national government, and has far-reaching implications for decentralisation and governance in a unitary, top-down and hierarchical Thai state. If these two provinces end up managing Covid-19 more effectively than the Thai government, calls for decentralisation, including direct elections of provincial governors, may get louder.
The big lesson for Thailand, as for other countries, is that a global crisis of this proportion had to be confronted squarely and firmly from the outset, especially the first hours. Transparency and clear communication from the top in the face of bad news are imperative. Once Thai government leaders from the prime minister and his deputies to the health minister fell behind on messaging and reassuring the public, the battle was lost. They have since had to play catch-up behind a wall of denials and delays.
Now is more a time to look for what the Thai government can be doing right going forward rather than what it has been doing wrong in the recent past. And Thailand is not alone in the category of what not to do. Japan also fell behind the curve and still refuses to cancel the 2020 Olympics in late July and early August. After similarly dithering like his counterpart in Thailand, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte finally bit the bullet and put Metro Manila and its 12 million inhabitants under lockdown that should have taken place earlier.
For Thailand, the latest closures of limited public venues for 14 days are half-baked and may prove futile. It slows down but does not stop unnecessary social contact. Those who are infected with Covid-19, perhaps unknowingly because symptoms have yet to emerge and because they have not been properly tested, can still roam the country and spread the virus to others. Thailand may already be beyond Stage Two, where coronavirus transmissions are linked to domestic and foreign carriers travelling to and from at-risk countries. While the latest available number of cases stood at 272 yesterday, the marginal daily increase is potentially exponential. The Thai government needs to accept and act on Stage Three contingencies, where the virus indigenises and takes hold locally, no longer directly connected to individuals from risk countries.
Moreover, cheaper and more convenient test kits should be made available. Vietnam, for instance, has reportedly produced adequate test kits that cost as low as 600 baht each. Thailand also needs to secure porous borders with Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar where Covid-19 cases are startlingly low or non-existent. If these three countries face uncontrollable outbreaks, Thailand will be adversely affected, partly because it employs several million migrant workers from there.
The inevitable is looking more like a Thailand lockdown. It requires a kind of civilian-led martial law environment countries like Peru have just put in place. Ironically, Thailand now needs a repressive government to fight against the coronavirus at the expense of basic freedoms. The Thai military, which has been so politicised and political, is also needed to put its resources at work, including care facilities and field hospitals if necessary. At the same time, the government must implement financial relief to the unemployed and downtrodden. If fiscal space is tight, a drastic measure would be what Peru did in dipping into its ample international reserves to help the poor during this time of crisis. As the list of what to do is long and daunting, acting now is better than later if Thailand is to see the back of Covid-19 as soon it can.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.