Coronavirus blues and clues in Thailand

Coronavirus blues and clues in Thailand

Suvarnabhumi airport is seen almost empty because of lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
Suvarnabhumi airport is seen almost empty because of lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

It is unanimous that the novel coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A common refrain everywhere in the world is "I have never seen anything like it". Its immediate consequences and longer-term transformational repercussions will be felt for years to come. Covid-19 challenges individuals, societies and state institutions to their very core. For Thailand, re-emerging from this devastating pandemic will be tough and tricky, with trade-offs and hard choices.

What the Thai government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha must aim for is a moving policy mix that achieves a balance of objectives between public health and economic well-being in tune with shifting mood and directions in the country and abroad.

From social distancing and heightened hygiene to lockdowns and curfews, Thais are suffering from Covid-19 just like most other societies in the world. We have seen a lot in the Thai space -- coups and curfews, demonstrations and violence in the streets, the Bangkok shutdown, even airport closures. But there is nothing like what we now see because it afflicts not just Thailand but the world more broadly.

As we face this virus enemy, there is nowhere to run and no need to hide. As long as we stay away from other people as much, as far, and as long as we can manage, then we are supposed to be out of the virus' way.

This is a time when nationals of all stripes who are abroad have gone home. This means there are the fewest foreigners in Thailand or any other host country at this time, an unprecedented phenomenon.

Yet it does not mean globalisation has stopped or reversed, or even slowed. True, borders have come up, trade has gone down, and global economic integration will be hindered dramatically. Travel and tourism will take many months to return to the numbers and patterns prior to Covid-19.

Some of the hardest-hit industries in this so-called "BEACH" sector will be bookings, entertainment, airlines and airports, cruises and casinos, and hotels and other hospitality offshoots. These leisure industries are sensitive to social distancing. The longer it is kept in place, the more these industries will suffer.

But in other ways, globalisation has become lopsided, neither reversed nor stopped. Transport of all modes has been dealt a major blow, whereas communications have made huge strides to the point that communications have become just about substitutable for transportation.

Thanks to the internet and media technologies, the virtual world is now a much bigger part of the real world. Working remotely in place of in-person work may be a legacy after the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under complete control. If continued, mixing in remote working may allow a better work-life balance.

The setback to transportation -- road, rail, aviation and waterways -- has also reduced air pollution. But plastic use has gone up due to home deliveries and increased packaging. This kind of trade-offs should prod policymakers to learn lessons from Covid-19 to look for an optimal mix of objectives.

After close to two months of lockdown, quarantine and other stringent social-distancing measures around the world, the mood is shifting in need of policy recalibration.

First, the draconian anti-virus measures over weeks appear to be working. To date, global numbers of infections (2.1 million) and deaths (just under 136,000) have steadied on a downward trend, while recoveries (more than 520,000) look promising.

Second, after so long under self-isolation, many are growing tired of confinement, exhibiting signs of lockdown fatigue.

Third, detrimental income effects are kicking in. Those with salaries are more secure but countless millions who live from one pay cheque to the next or from the cash-driven informal economy need their jobs back.

It is akin to extinguishing the virus by squeezing the life out of people and thereby undermining their livelihoods. People are not just kept away from friends, jobs and other activities but they are not allowed to earn income. Government relief money, in cases like Thailand, appears inadequate for subsistence over the months ahead.

Thus, the pressure will continue to build for a partial and gradual resumption of life and livelihood, of jobs and income, while virus precautions like social distancing and hand-washing remain in place.

Already some countries in Europe, such as in Denmark and Germany, have gradually reopened small businesses and some schools, while US President Donald Trump wants a broad re-opening. China, first in and first out of the Covid-19 ward, has largely re-opened with vigilance in maintaining precautions.

As the global mood and direction shifts after weeks of lockdown and isolation, Sweden's approach of living with the virus, while keeping it down and out and shoring up its healthcare system in the process, appears to have been on an optimal track among tough choices.

For Thailand, the coronavirus is a godsend for the Prayut government on the one hand and a hot potato on the other. The virus crisis has effectively muted dissenting voices from the youth movement and civil society, potentially whitewashed and covered up corruption scandals, such as face masks that have not been accounted for.

Previously controversial cabinet members, such as Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow, who had been embroiled in a drug-trafficking case, have been sitting it out quietly. Government politicians, such as Pareena Kraikupt, who was charged with encroachment of public land, have not been heard from.

While medical professionals performing like technocrats are making the Prayut government look competent on the Covid-19 front, this crisis has exposed Thailand's outdated bureaucracy and the sheer ineptitude of government leaders.

Whatever government bungling lies ahead, Gen Prayut must now institute some ways and means of re-opening Thailand's economy and society gradually and cautiously. Otherwise it will be the strong medicine, not the virus, that kills Thailand as the patient.

Will Thailand emerge stronger and more stable after Covid-19? We would like to think so and see this but it is most unlikely because of the sharp economic downturn to come and social discontent that has been brewing for some time in the face of government mismanagement and incompetence.

This crisis should be taken as an opportunity to undertake bureaucratic reforms, constitutional amendments, economic policy overhaul, education upgrading, and so forth. But instead, the coronavirus is likely to be a crisis within crises that seem unavoidable for Thailand to reach a new normal where it can move forward again.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

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.



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