Virus crisis reveals skeletons in our closet

Virus crisis reveals skeletons in our closet

Tourists enjoy the night life at a red-light district in Sukhumvit Soi 23 in Bangkok in 2018. Sex workers are among those excluded from government aid for informal workers. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Tourists enjoy the night life at a red-light district in Sukhumvit Soi 23 in Bangkok in 2018. Sex workers are among those excluded from government aid for informal workers. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

It was a desperate call for help. About 100 people gathered at the Finance Ministry on Tuesday and demanded the minister tell them why they were denied the 5,000-baht cash handout the government has granted to informal workers.

Sadly, the minister did not meet them. A senior official there told them to submit an appeal online by April 20. That's all. The ministry shut its gates afterwards to prevent entry by others complainants. All the people went home cashless wondering why they were not entitled to government aid to help lower income people cushion impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions of people who registered for the same package have also faced rejection.

This coronavirus outbreak has cornered many Thais into close proximity with famine and extreme poverty. It also exposes a reality that over the years millions of Thais have struggled to make ends meet. When the outbreak hit, they were not protected by state-sponsored social safety nets, largely due to the lack of effective social welfare programmes. They are crying out for a 5,000-baht handout because they don't have savings or other means of financing like well-off or middle-class people.

Covid-19 has not only laid bare this painful reality of the have-nots. It has exposed the skeletons in Thailand's closet -- a wide range of chronic social and political ills spread across society by the viruses of injustice, inequality and apathy. Unlike the coronavirus disease, we have just watched them going by without curing them.

The incident at the ministry demonstrates the government's insensitivity to the plight of the people as much as it shows its gross incompetence in its responses to the outbreak since January. These include its inability to ensure sufficient face masks for the public, even though the country hosts 10 large mask manufacturers, and to provide universal aid to everyone.

The government's actions and inaction can be seen as part of a bigger political problem. It shows that the government, led by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) which was carved out of the former military regime and did not win the last general election, has not been under much pressure to be accountable to the people.

On the contrary, the PPRP-led government still clings to the authoritarian style of rule espoused by its predecessor. Why does it endorse the arrest and imprisonment of those breaking the curfew or criticising the state at a time when compassion is crucial and a jail term is the last thing people want? As police hunt down a woman, who exposed alleged hoarding of 200 million face masks, for sharing "fake news", why hasn't the government tried to stop them? Maybe because it has done similar things in the past year.

We have been busy dealing with the outbreak and may have forgotten that Thailand would not have this administration had the electoral system not been manipulated to favour the government coalition. The poll agency's use of its magical formula for the calculation of party-list MP seats last year benefited the PPRP-led camp a great deal. The former regime-sponsored constitution also helped Gen Prayut retain his prime minister job easily with the help of senators, whom he handpicked.

The bigger problem is that the country's political system is prone to this and other kind of manipulation of "the systems" including the intervention in politics by the military or independent organisations.

While the outbreak shows the dire state of living of lower-income earners, many middle class and well-off people have accused them of not helping themselves enough. Thanks to Covid-19, disparity is laid bare in the open, again.

There's been so much talk and ample research on the country's widening inequality, but little has been done to change it. When there were political parties, like the now dissolved-Future Forward, trying to make the promotion of equality a policy priority, they ended up being the victim of political witch-hunts. Like it or not, Future Forward had brought many MPs who are real ordinary people to the Lower House that is traditionally dominated by those from the elite and influential political clans. It helped bridge inequality in the House to a certain level.

And while people are crying out for help during the outbreak, assistance from the financial sector has been half-baked and heartless. The majority of banks and financial institutions have just offered deals that let their customers defer principal payment for three months, but keep paying interest. At a time when millions have become jobless and lent hope on the 5,000-baht handout, how come these lenders think they can afford to pay the interest on their mortgages or auto loans? From the cash handout?

The banking sector has built its wealth partly on interest and fees paid by personal customers for decades. But it has done little to help them during this hard time. Worse still, the Bank of Thailand has not tried to force them to do more.

And for the country that hypocrisy is as common as papaya salad. The state does not seem to recognise sex workers as informal workers who should be entitled to the 5,000-baht scheme. For so long, they have contributed to the once-thriving tourist and entertainment industries. Since the outbreak hit, hundreds of thousands of them have been left jobless and neglected.

Covid-19 has also posed a risk to roughly 350,000 prisoners living in overcrowded cells across the country. The pandemic has raised questions as to why the country's justice system has put so many people in jail for committing petty crimes. The majority of them are former drug users or small-time dealers jailed for drug offences. The same goes for sharp-tongued political activists and the poor accused of intruding on forest land where they have lived for generations. And don't forget the hundreds of people recently jailed for breaking the curfew.

When the Covid-19 disease can eventually be treated with a vaccine, the virus will likely no longer be big problem. But the social and political ills will linger as long as we do not try to treat them. Recognising equal political rights can be one of the remedies. Intolerance towards any efforts to exploit "the system" to easily eliminate political parties is another.

More importantly, recognising the existence and contribution of the have-nots and the social outcasts, and helping them climb the economic ladder should be the highest priority for any government that boasts about not leaving anyone behind.

Surasak Glahan

Deputy Op-ed Editor

Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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