Paranoia wreaking economic havoc
We have taken pride in the fact that Thailand has not had any local transmission of Covid-19 for more than 50 consecutive days and that our success in stemming the spread of the virus has won worldwide praise.
Day in day out for the past several months, our eardrums have been bombarded with the same monotone message from the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) that we must not lower our guard.
As we are proud of our achievement while many other countries are still struggling desperately to contain the pandemic, we seem to have forgotten the hard truth there is no place on Earth which is 100% safe from this dangerous virus, and the fact that we will have to live with it for years to come until there is an effective vaccine or vaccines.
So when something went wrong -- like last week, when it was discovered that some members of an Egyptian military mission who stayed at a hotel in Rayong went out shopping at a mall in violation of the requirement to stay at the hotel, and one was found later to be infected with the virus -- many people in the province were shocked. The myth that this province is safe after being free from new infections for more than 100 days was suddenly shattered.
Panic set in, followed by anger when it was found the Egyptians were accorded a privilege that exempted them from 14-day mandatory quarantine. Opposition and anti-government elements were quick to join the fray in finger-pointing at the CCSA, the government and demanding accountability from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
It is justified for the people in Rayong to feel alarmed. The swab tests conducted on thousands of people and the disinfection of the two venues -- the hotel where the Egyptian mission stayed and the malls where they visited -- are reasonable. Nevertheless, some state authorities seem to be overly panicking to the extent of paranoia.
The public outrage left the CCSA's subcommittee with no other option but to bow to their demand that foreign diplomats and their families arriving the kingdom have to undergo the so-called "alternative state quarantine", instead of self-isolation at their residence for 14 days. Since this privilege is reciprocal as a standard practice in the diplomatic community, Thai diplomats and their families are expected to be treated likewise when they travel to other countries.
But the fallout from this policy reversal will kill the travel bubble scheme being mulled by the government to resuscitate the ailing tourism industry, which has been hardest hit by Covid-19 pandemic.
Since every arrival from abroad is required to be quarantined without exception, there is now only a remote possibility the travel bubble scheme can take off. Which tourists will visit Thailand, knowing that they must spend their first 14 days in state quarantine before they can go sightseeing or shopping?
The hardcore safety-first advocates have won again at the expense of the economy, at the cost of more people losing their jobs and the hopes of the sputtering tourism and related businesses of seeing a revival.
That tourists are returning to Rayong after the Egyptian debacle was rectified is just temporary relief. Sooner or later, Rayong will join a long list of popular tourist destinations such as Phuket, Pattaya and Krabi, which have become ghost towns.
What has happened to striking a balance between maintaining public safety and saving the economy or, at least, giving the economy some breathing room?
It is an uphill task and it needs strong, competent and trustworthy leadership to guide the country and its people through this super crisis. But alas, this leadership has bowed to the pressure of ugly politicians and dumped its four-member economic team which has faithfully and honestly served the regime for the past 4-5 years. What a pity!
The opposition, too, appears to be good at criticising the regime, but short of its own vision of how to save the post-Covid economy.
There is a need for the people to be vigilant and keep their guard, but the country needs to open up more to give the economy a chance to survive too.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.