Time for the 1% to step forward
Thailand is going through its most critical moment in modern history: twin crises of a health pandemic and a deepening economic crisis that feed on each other and affect all Thais regardless of status and income. In a bad-case scenario, up to 7,000 people could needlessly die with the economy vastly disrupted.
The policy priorities first and foremost must be on (1) saving the lives of the infected and protecting frontline doctors and nurses, (2) limiting the spread of the virus through containment, and (3) dealing with the economic consequences of the crisis and the containment measures decisively with direct support to those affected, with a resource outlay large enough that the country's economic capacity could be restored back to normalcy as soon as the pandemic passes. The underlying premise is that the crisis is a transitory shock, lasting up to six months or more.
For Thailand, while policymakers seem to be saying the right things and taking more measures, most observers feel the response from the government so far has left much to be desired, both in terms of the clarity of views regarding the approach to tackle the crises and the willingness to act in terms of the level of resources committed to address the problems. For example, the latest Covid-19 economic package amounts to far less than 1% of GDP compared to 3-8% of GDP in other Asian countries. The policy course is unlikely to change significantly given the country's power politics. But unlike past crises, this time no one is above them. The crisis will affect all Thais, rich and poor. And if the policy response is inadequate or mismanaged, there is a huge existential risk that the crises could destroy not just the lives of people but also our economy, businesses, companies, financial savings of the middle class and civil servants, as well as the wealth of the richest people.
More importantly, in a very unequal society like ours, the burden of adjustment and pain will fall disproportionately on the poor, 14.5 million in all according to the government, who lack incomes and access to basic necessities. Their plight and fight for survival will threaten the social order.
To avoid failing, Thai citizens and businesses need to engage more in this fight. We all need to share the burden. In tandem with the government's efforts, our business leaders and the country's top elite will need to step forward and provide the country with the leadership needed for the business sector and the civil society to engage and help save the country through collaboration and social contribution. There is so much wealth and expertise in the private sector and some of this wealth and expertise now needs to be mobilised to close the gaps left by the government in terms of what needs to be done to effectively address the problems, supported by the voluntary engagement of civil society. At least three key gaps can be filled through this power of collaboration and contribution. First, private companies, both listed and non-listed, can join hands to adopt a no-redundancy-in-employment policy to help keep those currently employed in work during this difficult time. It is more important now than ever to keep things going macroeconomically for the larger picture, to ensure a continued livelihood of wage earners and at least 20 million Thais that will put the economy on a stronger footing once the pandemic passes.
Short-term financial losses can be made up by future growth and profit, subsidised loans from banks, tax credits, and other government assistance, while the longer-term fundamentals and resiliency of our economy remain intact. Second, the country's top 1% who own the majority of the country's wealth can lead a nationwide donation campaign aimed at mobilising funds to help raise healthcare capacities to effectively fight the pandemic. With 0.1% of bank depositors owning close to 50% of total bank savings, a mere 1% of this savings contributed as donations could instantly free the country's resources.
The funds can help build more field hospitals, turning empty hotels and apartments into places for discharged patients to recover or for quarantining, recruiting more nurses and heath personnel, buying more beds, ventilators, medicines, masks, medical equipment, and investing in a domestic mass production of quick and reliable testing kits that would enable mass testing to be carried out free nationwide to reduce the spread of the virus and protect our doctors and nurses on the front lines. This is a special time which requires a special solution to save lives and save Thailand. It is a collaboration that is very much within our reach to make happen.
Third, through donation and engagement of volunteers, a system of communal kitchens can be set up throughout the country to provide a free takeaway food safety net for the poor as well as home delivery of food and other necessities for the elderly who are housebound. Some of the donation money can be used to engage local restaurants, street food vendors, and temples in the community to provide clean and hygienic food to those in need while companies and people in the community help out with voluntary labour, donation of food produce, and kitchen materials. The aim is to make sure that the 14.5 million poor and their families throughout Thailand do not go hungry in this very difficult year. The concept of food shelters, or rong than, is well accepted amongst Thais as a way of making merit and as the country's traditional social safety net. The practice of giving to help others is a strength of our society. It is a way of communal help at a time of difficulty that goes back a long way. It's noteworthy that monks in some temples are already cooking to feed the poor.
Many people say that this crisis will bring out the best and the worst of everything that we have as a country, as it is a true test of our political leadership, our bureaucratic competency, our system of governance, as well as the strength and the resiliency of our society to collaborate and meet the challenge head on collectively. I cannot agree more. This is our time and it is now our turn to act.
Bandid Nijathaworn, Bank of Thailand's former deputy governor, is chairman of the Foundation for Public Policy and Good Governance.
Visiting Professor at Hitotsubashi University
Bandid Nijathaworn is president and CEO of the Thai Institute of Directors and visiting professor, Hitotsubashi University. This is an abridged version of an article featured in the book 'Bretton Woods, The Next 70 Years', published by the Reinventing Bretton Woods Committee, 2015.