Patronage may end up costing us dear
Thais should have enjoyed and celebrated the arrival of the New Year, but many have stayed at home and celebrated quietly with their love ones instead, not knowing this time around how long it will take before this second wave of Covid-19 will be contained. Forget about the economic recovery or the ambitious plan of turning Thailand into a safe haven for foreign tourists wanting to escape the contagion.
Before mid-December, everything seemed to be fine as the country was heading toward a fresh start with hope for a better future than the previous year as the economy was slowly picking up despite the political hiccups orchestrated by the pro-reform movement, which seemed to have lost direction. We won the first round of the battle against the pandemic with flying colours while many developed countries were counting new infections in four- or five-digit figures on a daily basis while Thailand only counted new cases from arrivals from abroad.
It was a feel-good atmosphere. Then, all of a sudden, the sky fell down and the dream was shattered.
It started with an elderly woman, a seafood wholesaler at the central shrimp market in Samut Sakhon, Thailand's biggest seafood trading hub. She was found to be infected with Covid-19, despite not having left the province or travelled abroad for a long time. Her Myanmar employees also tested positive for the virus.
Pro-active health screening of Myanmar migrant workers by health officials found several more cases, confirming the suspicion that the contagion originated from the undocumented migrant workers. But the contagion has already spread to many other provinces because several Thai seafood vendors went to Samut Sakhon to buy seafood to sell in their home provinces.
Although a large number of migrant labourers in Samut Sakhon have registered with the state, the saga shed light on the operation of human smuggling gangs that facilitate illegal border crossing. Among those who sneaked into Thailand are carriers of the G-strain virus, which spread across Bangladesh and into Myanmar. More importantly, the pandemic in Tachilek forced many Myanmar and Thais working in the town to flee to seek save haven in Thailand.
As a matter of fact, we were given a wakeup call before the Samut Sakhon outbreak. A handful of Thai women working in Tachilek slipped back into Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai in late November and travelled elsewhere before they were found to be infected. The virus has spread to some provinces, namely Chiang Mai, Phayao, Phichit, Ratchaburi and Bangkok. But the quick response of health officials plus the orderly repatriation programme arranged through the Thai-Myanmar border committee managed to end that particular spree of border crossings by Thais and to contain the spread of the contagion within a short period of time.
Perhaps the alarm rang by the Chiang Rai case was not loud enough, because we didn't wake up. Security officials responsible for guarding the border with Myanmar appear to have been working without any sense of urgency, like it was just another pre-pandemic day on the job, while the virus was spreading like wildfire in Myanmar due to its poor health system.
Although undocumented Myanmar migrant workers have been cited as the source of the outbreak in Samut Sakhon, many Thais should also be blamed, among them the business operators who hired the undocumented workers, labour officials for their incompetency in keeping tabs on them, border security officials who may have turned a blind eye to human trafficking gangs in return for ill-gotten gains and interior officials who have no idea exactly how many undocumented migrant workers have been and still are in Samut Sakhon.
But the worst culprits are the policemen who seem to have no idea where illegal gambling dens are operating in their zones of jurisdiction. The illegal gambling den in Rayong, which was blamed for another Covid-19 recent outbreak, is a classic example. The former police commander of the province unashamedly denied the existence of the establishment, claiming it may have just been just a temporary joint. It came as no surprise when he was abruptly removed from the post.
As of last Friday, gambling-related infections in Rayong were recorded at 316, not counting cases in other provinces, and the local hospital is overwhelmed to the point where field hospitals have been set up to cope with an anticipated rise of infections.
Under normal circumstances, most Thais tolerate the existence of illegal gambling dens so long as they do not cause a disturbance in the neighbourhood and are fully aware that the police in their localities reap benefits from their operations.
It is an open secret that police and the operators of illegal gambling dens, bars that operate beyond hours, and massage parlours mutually benefit from the illicit operations.
But this time around, it is different. The economic loss caused by the outbreak, be it the Samut Sakhon or the Rayong incidents, is enormous although yet to be fathomed, depending on how long it takes for the situation to be brought under control. The human suffering is also extensive. And while the complicity of the police in the Rayong gambling den was not unexpected, it is inexcusable at a time like this.
It may be true that this is not the right time for finger-pointing. That reckoning should come when the outbreak is under control, but it is clear that removing a handful of police officers will not suffice.
Business operators who suffer from the latest outbreak should explore the plausibility of taking legal action against the Royal Thai Police over the Rayong incident as a way of gaining compensation from the government for their loss of earnings.
After seven years in office, the Prayut regime has yet to demonstrate that it is serious about bureaucratic reform, especially of the police force. And it apparently even lacks the will or courage tackle the issue during a time when it has the magic wand of its executive powers in its grip. Perhaps, it is the government itself that needs to be reformed from the inside out.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.