Virus blunders see govt bobbing and weaving

Virus blunders see govt bobbing and weaving

A big round of applause from people around the country can lift the spirits of doctors and nurses fighting against the coronavirus outbreak. But what use is this gesture when they don't have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE)?

Health personnel on the front lines and government authorities at the central command centre seem to be existing in parallel universes.

On social media, we see doctors and nurses make do with whatever materials they have to hand to protect themselves while appealing for the public to donate surgical masks or PPE suits.

We have seen health workers wearing plastic bags or relying on makeshift shields when dealing with Covid-19 patients.

We saw photos of nurses washing and sanitising face masks for reuse as they are given only a few to use each week.

These are stories of desperation and heroic attempts to keep saving lives even in the face of extreme shortages and hardship.

Back in the central control room, however, things couldn't be more different.

Every day, we are repeatedly assured by officials at the microphone that there has been no shortage of face masks or other protective equipment. We have been told we have enough medicines, beds and ventilators if needed.

Who is telling the truth?

The blame game is never helpful in the middle of a crisis. But even an outbreak should not be an excuse for corruption, inefficiency or mistakes to be covered up or brushed aside.

For more than two months, the question of what happened to the 200 million surgical masks that Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit said the country had in stock at the end of January has been asked loudly.

Yesterday, the commerce permanent secretary said during the government's daily update that this seemingly massive stock never existed. It was a miscommunication.

Why has the ministry waited for two months to inform the public? Isn't it odd?

If it was truly a miscommunication, should someone step up to take responsibility? Was the country's plan to cope with the outbreak based on an incorrect estimation? Is this misunderstanding the reason why hospitals and health personnel do not have enough face masks?

It would be a gross mistake for the commerce minister to misrepresent the country's stock with a crisis looming. Does he know yet that what he told the public was not true? When exactly did he realise his misunderstanding of the stock level? Why did he fail to own up to the public?

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam apparently wanted to put a mask on the whole thing and told people to just forget every number we have been told regarding the stock and production of this essential item.

So what have we lived with during the past three months? Lies, gross inefficiency, corruption?

DPM Wissanu said we need to start anew as of yesterday, with a clear idea of stock and distribution plans. But how can we trust that they will get it right this time? After all, this is the same government that made the initial mistake. Are we supposed to forget everything?

The same is true with Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. Even though the army-run stadium organised a big event despite an order by the government banning such gatherings, it is not clear yet who will take responsibility.

Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, who incidentally serves as chairman of the stadium's board, did transfer the army general in charge of the boxing ring to pave the way for an inquiry on March 27. But that was almost two weeks after it became known that the defiant stadium had been a major spreader of coronavirus infections.

A dozen or so people came out to say that they tested positive in mid-March but the stadium was only closed last Saturday.

When asked by reporters earlier, Defence Forces chief Pornpipat Benyasri in charge of security for the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration told the public to let bygones be bygones.

Credit where it's due and applaud as loud as we can for people who deserve it. But that does not mean we have to turn a blind eye to those who messed up, especially if they put other people's lives in danger. The outbreak will be with us for a while and accountability is critical in our fight to contain it.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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