Let's learn to coexist with Covid-19

Let's learn to coexist with Covid-19

Empty streets and food stalls near Khao San Road after the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. Pornprom Satrabhaya
Empty streets and food stalls near Khao San Road after the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. Pornprom Satrabhaya

Once a bustling business district, Khao San Road looked like a ghost town when I dropped by last week. Most of the shops and restaurants in the area, one of Bangkok's top tourist attractions, were closed. There were no visitors; I saw only a few vendors and passers-by.

I accompanied a friend to a cafe which remained open even though there were no customers. The cafe owner was alone behind the counter as she could no longer hire staff. The upper floor is an empty hostel.

Like many other business districts during the coronavirus era, Khao San has encountered difficulties.

"Covid has brought my business to a standstill, with zero customers and guests for quite some time," the cafe owner said, referring to Covid-19 second wave that started from a wholesale seafood market in Samut Sakhon in mid-December last year.

"Right after the first wave [early last year], some Thai customers still came here," she said.

Though the number of visitors was lower than that of the pre-pandemic era, they had saved her business.

Her theory behind this, which sounds sensible, is that economic activities have been suspended for too long in the wake of the pandemic. With stringent anti-virus measures, social distancing and other restrictions, people stop spending, or fear spending, or fear coming out of their houses to spend.

If we look at the bigger picture, I believe it's not just the coronavirus that has contributed to the gloomy economy.

Many activities in Thailand have been suspended or delayed amid measures to tackle PM2.5 air pollution. People are not in a healthy mood, given stagnant political conflict, and other high-profile scandals.

But Covid-19 has had the most serious effect. This is largely because of the government's obsession in bringing down the numbers of daily confirmed cases.

The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has projected the virus as a monster that must be killed before we start living, instead of finding ways to coexist with it.

The cafe owner believes her business will die before the "monster" is subdued. So she has continued opening the shop, inventing new menus and accepting orders online. But it's not possible to make ends meet as she must still pay the rent.

According to a CNBC report, Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Covid-19 vaccine-maker Moderna, warned that coronavirus would be with us "forever". He spoke while he appeared at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference on Wednesday.

The report also cited public health officials and infectious disease experts at the conference, who said there is a likelihood that Covid-19 will become an endemic disease, meaning it will present in communities, though probably at lower levels than it is now.

Put simply: We need vaccines. But as the best vaccines are being developed we may also need to live with the virus for years.

So why halt the things that matter? Instead, I think we must continue living and doing business while remaining cautious -- which is just what the cafe owner is doing.

That means we (plus the government) must go beyond daily case counting as if it is the only thing that matters.

At the same time, it must stop blaming people for not doing enough to flatten the curve, while dragging its feet in getting the real culprits: owners of gambling dens that became virus epicentres, and all those officers who neglected their duty, resulting in the "superspreader" phenomenon.

It's evident that small businesses are the biggest losers in the coronavirus second wave (but the CCSA prefers to call it a "new wave").

They are restricted by social distancing measures, and the government restricting service hours of restaurants and food shops. Some local administration organisations went to the extreme, shutting down fresh markets, putting hundreds in financial trouble.

Larger businesses, with more capital, such as department stores and convenience store chains, are allowed to get on with business as usual. It's argued that they are required to comply with public health measures including temperature checks and visitor number restrictions -- though some venues I recently visited did not fully comply with those rules.

Some doctors say outdoor fresh markets and small open-air restaurants are safer with better ventilation than air-conditioned department stores. So why do they face stricter restrictions? Why do large businesses get the privileges while smaller ones struggle.

By allowing large businesses to operate as usual, the government can avoid the term "lockdown" -- and responsibility concerning lockdown measures.

Also, as the CCSA blames the irresponsibility of individuals as the main cause of local transmission, it gives a perception that small businesses must be sacrificed to contain the number of cases.

This perception has developed into what appears to be a witchhunt for those who do not sacrifice for the people's health and safety.

A friend of mine who runs a small service business and is required to appear at his workplace during the pandemic once joked: "Don't post anything online, or you will be bullied by netizens for coming to work -- even though you wear your mask."

I wish the cafe owner -- and those in the same situation -- luck.

She has struggled hard in this difficult time and taken the risk on her own since the beginning.

I also wish she won't be wrongly judged for not helping to contain the infection by closing down her shop.

We shall keep the economy going, inclusively, while dealing with the pandemic.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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