Saksayam must come clean on Covid

Saksayam must come clean on Covid

People turn up in droves to get Covid-19 tests near the Bar Bar Bar pub in the Thong Lor area of the capital yesterday. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
People turn up in droves to get Covid-19 tests near the Bar Bar Bar pub in the Thong Lor area of the capital yesterday. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

It appears the third wave of Covid-19 in Thailand, with top entertainment venues in the Thong Lor area as its epicentre, is more severe than the previous two rounds. Virologists have detected the UK strain of the virus, which spreads 1.7 times faster than the variants this country has previously coped with. This is alarming.

With the new spike, the total number of cases has surpassed 30,000. There are fears that new cases will soon hit 1,000 a day. Now the outbreak linked to the Bangkok cluster has reached at least 32 provinces, with total new infections at 604 across the country.

As the new outbreak was confirmed, several celebrities revealed that they contracted the virus and, due to their lifestyle, some were categorised as super-spreaders. Evidently, these people irresponsibly violated anti-virus measures imposed by the government.

Now all eyes are on Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, the secretary-general of the Bhumjaithai Party (BJT), who is currently being treated for Covid-19 in a hospital in Buri Ram. He is the first cabinet member to fall victim to the virus and has been deemed as a super-spreader among politicians. Three people in close contact with him got the virus. One of the three is Kittichai Ruangsawat, BJT's Chachoengsao MP, who was quoted by the media as admitting that he had accompanied Mr Saksayam to a club in Thong Lor in mid-March. He later backtracked, saying the media got it wrong.

Besides the State Railway of Thailand's governor Niruj Maneepun, who also tested positive, BJT and Democrat parties' ministers who went to BJT's anniversary on Tuesday have sought Covid-19 tests and have gone into self-quarantine. 61 BJT MPs took leave of absence from House meetings this week and Somdej Phra Wannarat, head of Dhammyuttika and abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, has also gone into self-quarantine for 14 days after attending BJT's anniversary and merit making ceremony.

There are rumours that Mr Saksayam visited a club in Thong Lor earlier this month, shortly before he caught the virus, all of which he has tersely denied. Members of the media are working hard and digging up information to find out if the minister is telling lies.

Needless to say, getting the virus from one of the clubs that has led to this third wave is a severe crime given that these club-goers violated the emergency decree and other relevant regulations that were aimed at curbing infections. If it is found that the minister did indeed contract this virus at the club -- which he has denied -- this would be unacceptable, as the minister and his colleagues are meant to be role models for society.

More specifically, Mr Saksayam is a key member of BJT, the party that oversees public health issues. BJT leader Anutin Charnvirakul, who is also a deputy prime minister and public health minister, often instructs Thais not to lower their guard, and not to violate Covid laws. Previously, Mr Anutin even blasted a doctor who contracted the virus at a party, saying public health officials must set a good example for everyone else.

Now Mr Saksayam, a key BJT figure, is at the centre of controversy. The thing is few, if any people, believe him.

One day before taking the Covid test, Mr Saksayam told the media he did not visit the club. He also claimed he was fully vaccinated with two jabs. Later on, when it was confirmed that he had the virus (he blamed it on his close aides), the minister confessed that he had had only one shot.

Why did he lie?

Worse, the minister refused to unveil his timeline of activities during the period. Only after mounting social pressure did his team release one, but it was incomplete.

Chuvit Kamolvisit, a former massage parlour tycoon, also said "the you-know-who minister" was at the club, discussing 10-billion baht concessions with two cabinet ministers.

MPs have launched a probe into Mr Saksayam. Sira Jenjaka from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, will summon police officers, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's representatives as well as the club operators and "ministers involved" to clarify the matter.

Supachai Jaisamut, a key BJT politician, defended his party, saying that getting the virus is not a crime. This is not good enough.

It's necessary for Mr Saksayam to come clean and tell the truth. Take a look at some celebrities who tested positive for the virus. They admitted to it, warned the people they might have put at risk and then apologised.

Take the case of Techin Ploypetch aka DJ Matoom who earlier this year made headlines after the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration pinpointed him as a super-spreader, as 24 Covid-19 cases were linked to his party at a Bangkok hotel. Initially, the DJ lied.

Then Mr Anutin ordered the authorities to check CCTV footage to see how the DJ and his guests behaved at the hotel. The minister threatened to have the DJ given a jail term and fine, as he hosted a party violating government regulations. The party-goers also drank alcohol, another breach of regulations. Timeline concealment in that instance was correctly regarded as giving false information and was subject to penalties.

"Doctors have the authority. If anyone refuses to reveal [his/her] timeline, we have to exercise the law," Mr Anutin said back then.

DJ Matoom was later charged with violating the emergency decree. He was sentenced to two months in prison and a 20,000-baht fine. Because he pleaded guilty, the court then reduced the prison term by half and also suspended it. Now Mr Anutin as well as the authorities involved must seriously investigate what happened at the Thong Lor clubs. Security cameras must be checked, with no special favours to Mr Saksayam, regardless of the fact that he is a minister and from the same political party as Mr Anutin.

Those who helped conceal any information must face penalties in accordance with the emergency decree and Communicable Diseases Act.

And finally, if he did go to the club as accused, he should no longer be eligible to be a minister. We have seen examples from other countries, like New Zealand and Ireland, when ministers who breached anti-Covid regulations came out and apologised to the public. Some were forced to resign.

We expect the Thai government to follow that standard. There must be a probe into Mr Saksayam, and if he is guilty, he must give up his cabinet position and face legal action. He cannot just say "I will recover and come back to work as soon as possible," as he has insisted.

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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