Covid-19 exposes our broken system

Covid-19 exposes our broken system

Some of those who missed out on payments under the state's 5,000 baht relief scheme gather at the Ministry of Finance last week to voice their grievances, asking for a review. Nutthawat Wicheanbut
Some of those who missed out on payments under the state's 5,000 baht relief scheme gather at the Ministry of Finance last week to voice their grievances, asking for a review. Nutthawat Wicheanbut

The government's constant mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic evokes two images in my mind. One is a badly infected wound. The other is an overblown balloon ready to burst.

I return to the same question every day: How long can we go on with this broken system?

Here are some of the messes that have arisen from the government's handling of the pandemic:

• Face-mask corruption, a shameless cover-up and drive to punish the whistleblower.

• Putting money over public safety by welcoming tourists from China and other high-risk countries amid the pandemic.

• The abrupt Bangkok lockdown that caused the virus to spread into the provinces.

• The military-run boxing stadium serving as a coronavirus super spreader.

• The order from health authorities prohibiting doctors and nurses from asking the public for help in procuring protective gear because it makes the government lose face.

• The stay-at-home and social distancing policy that is blind to the situation of the impoverished masses and their needs for assistance.

• The lack of concern for migrant workers' need for protection against ethnic prejudice, which has come with fatal consequences.

• Immigration authorities' business-as-usual approach to expatriates' visa extensions despite the pandemic.

• The senseless "fit to fly" document demands for Thais overseas, endless red tape and unwillingness to help them to return home.

• The double standard treatment for Thai returnees based on their socio-economic status.

• The disastrous 5,000-baht compensation scheme.

• Daylight robbery by electricity authorities.

• The prohibition (and reported seizure) of food donations by good Samaritans on the ground they are breaking social distancing rules.

• The prime minister's soliciting of help from 20 billionaires, which is tantamount to admitting the pandemic exceeds the government's ability to cope.

Have I left anything out?

A picture that went viral on social media underscores the government's lack of empathy in its handling of the pandemic, as well as the gross disparity in Thailand. The photo shows a group of desperate workers prostrating themselves on the floor to write their petitions against the problematic 5,000-baht cash handouts scheme at the Ministry of Finance. Right behind them is a luxurious, empty reception room which the poor were prohibited from entering.

This is the mandarins' standard treatment of people they view to be lesser than themselves.

Despite loud calls for financial assistance across the board to ease their suffering, the government insists on the selective cash handouts. When people complain about the flawed process that leaves the needy in the lurch, they are hit with more paperwork.

Officialdom's rigidity is not the only reason why the government fiercely resists the idea of universal coverage of welfare benefits. Be it in normal times or national emergencies, the government's constant refrain is lack of money. This is a hollow excuse.

Thailand is fortunate to have a universal healthcare system and nationwide grassroots health personnel to protect people during this pandemic. It's clear during these troubled times that human security and health safety are more important than tanks, submarines and other military toys.

People now realise that handouts wouldn't be unnecessary if they had universal welfare coverage to fall back on. They are now asking the same questions: Why not cut the military's bloated budget (among others) to expand the social safety net and strengthen the healthcare system?

We know what the answer is, and why. Notwithstanding bureaucratic rigidity and officialdom's blase attitude toward the poor, the government chooses handouts because charities extol givers, cheapen recipients, and keep the status quo intact.

Universal welfare coverage, meanwhile, shows respect for human dignity and equal rights, levels the playing field and gives people more choices in life. A strong welfare system empowers people and shakes the patronage system -- the last thing the powers-that-be want.

To see through what the self-serving bureaucratic state and elites stand for, look at the national purse. Look at the budget allocations which boil down to money, power and the protection of the status quo. Who cares if the country and the majority of people suffer in the process? The daily policy flip-flops also reveal a serious lack of vision, planning, empathy and principles.

Last week, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha triggered public outrage by announcing on TV that he would ask 20 billionaires to help the government fight the pandemic since they are "the richest in the land".

"Tell me how you can cooperate with us, how you can help Thailand more?" he asked in a tone denoting a military order.

By doing so, he implicitly admitted the pandemic is getting out of hand. Doesn't he know that public confidence in the leadership is crucial during a national crisis? Doesn't he realise the government must regulate big businesses to protect the public interest and stay clear of policies that could be interpreted as a quid pro quo?

Days earlier, the prime minister said the government had run out of money. It was only natural to interpret the announcement as a cry for money, leading to public anger and the "beggar government" condemnation.

In an apparent face-saving attempt, the prime minister on Tuesday released an open letter to the billionaires, stressing the government is not asking for money, but their efforts to help people more and do it "faster and more efficiently".

Shouldn't he save this instruction for the people in his government?

True to his military and bureaucratic top-down style, the prime minister ordered the billionaires to send him their project proposals by next week so the government can assist them accordingly.

It did not occur to him to first ask the people what they in fact need "faster, more efficiently and transparently".

The same day, the government made policy U-turns on the 5,000-baht handouts and the extraordinarily high power bills to appease public fury.

For the handouts, the cabinet finally increased the number of recipients from nine to 14 million.

Again, the government refuses to consider cash assistance across the board or create systematic universal welfare coverage to prepare for future crises.

For the power bill hikes, people cried foul, not only because of the gross lack of empathy for people in crisis, but also because of possible irregularities and the perennially non-transparent power cost calculations.

With cabinet approval for the electricity bill cuts, power authorities can let out a sigh of relief, having escaped public scrutiny.

The cabinet also approved a visa extension for foreigners for three more months. The decision should have been made swiftly to avoid the spread of Covid-19, but instead was forced to yield to the bureaucracy.

The Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the malaise afflicting our society. In one of the world's most unequal countries, the pandemic exposes yet again the chasm between the rich and the poor.

The government's handling of the pandemic also reveals corruption, nepotism and obsession with face, even at the expense of lives.

Importantly, it shows that centralised officialdom's business-as-usual mentality not only fails to respond to the pandemic, but aggravates it.

Covid-19 exposes our broken system and the public fury is growing every day with state inefficiency. People want comprehensive bureaucratic reform. They also want universal welfare coverage, not handouts.

Universal welfare coverage would prevent society from reaching a breaking point. But if the government insists on maintaining the status quo, the worst is yet to come.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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