Almost 10 years ago, the Thai government faced another huge crisis and unnatural disaster: the 2011 floods which killed over 800 and caused over US$45 billion (1.5 trillion baht) in damage. The damage and losses would have been significantly lower if the Yingluck Shinawatra government had responded more effectively. While the responses needed to the coronavirus certainly differ from a mega-flood, there are numerous lessons that the current Prayut Chan-o-cha government can learn from the mistakes made during the floods and thus how to best handle a crisis. But have they?
DON'T BE OVERCONFIDENT
One of the most notorious mantras by the Yingluck government during the floods was the phrase aoo yuu which means "we can handle it". They told everybody this presumably to save face but in the end, they couldn't handle the floods completely. Many residents trusted the government's announcement and, consequently, did not evacuate as early and try to protect their houses and possessions as much as had they been fully warned earlier. Similarly, the Prayut government has stated that "everything is under control" even though the number of cases has recently skyrocketed. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also recently proclaimed: "We will be able to contain the outbreak of the virus in a few weeks," even though this seems farfetched. In contrast, the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of a "serious situation" and told his compatriots to be prepared for the worst since the pandemic could last for a long time.
NO UNCLEAR INFORMATION
During the floods, the national government and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) disseminated vague and sometimes contradictory information. For example, the spokesperson for the national government told residents of Bangkok's Taling Chan and Laksi districts to go to work while the BMA announced that people in those districts should evacuate. The lack of unambiguous information frustrated residents who had no idea how long their area would stay flooded or why their area remained flooded while others remained dry. Similarly, Thai leaders have recently flip-flopped over visa and quarantine policies for foreigners and Thais returning from South Korea. This has caused confusion and a lower level of trust in the government.
DON'T POLITICISE CRISIS
Political infighting between Thailand's two major political parties weakened the state's response to the floods. Each party sought to blame the other for creating or exacerbating the floods. Further, the Democrat-controlled BMA did not follow the order of the Pheu Thai-controlled national government. On the flip side, during the coronavirus outbreak, the Prayut government has sought to deafen any criticism of it, stating that its critics are "slandering" the government and threatening to throw anybody who "politicises" the issue in jail. While spreading false information is certainly unhelpful, responding constructively to widespread criticism without slamming its critics and not seeking to politicise it would be a positive step.
During the floods, various agencies, including the Royal Irrigation Department (RID), the Pheu-Thai led Flood Relief Operation Centre (Froc), BMA, and the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM), had differing objectives and strategies to address the floods and often did not collaborate, especially at the beginning. This worsened the response. Similarly, there has been a lack of cooperation and unity in relation to its coronavirus response. Instead, different coalition partners have been blaming each for the government's poor performance. For example, as reported by Khaosod, the military, immigration department and Ministry of Health did not cooperate with the airport authorities to help screen passengers for the virus. As another example, the Internal Trade Department and Customs Department have failed to ensure sufficient face masks. A high-level committee comprised of agencies working together to meet common goals would improve the response.
LET EXPERTS HANDLE THE CRISIS
During the floods, politicians, such as then Justice Minister Pracha Promnok who had no background in flood management, assumed control of the country's response. However, they made many mistakes, such as where to release and block water. In an interview with Karen Brooks, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Yingluck admitted that mistakes were made by Froc's leaders and advisers. This year, politicians once again have sought to handle the crisis but have made many gaffes, and until recently, largely sidelined experts. More positively, the government has recently set up a "Team Thailand" of the country's top medical professionals to play a leading role in the response.
While it seems that the current government has yet to learn from mistakes made during the 2011 floods, the last previous crisis, the good news is that there is still time for it to change course. Creating "Team Thailand" is a positive first step. Additionally, being more transparent, collaborative and confident, but still humble, unified and deferent to experts, would certainly help improve the government's crisis management, reduce the number of new cases and potentially save lives.
Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.