Vaccine a help but no panacea
For a couple of weeks prior to the flop that will be this year's Songkran holiday, the stage truly looked set for the triumphant return of domestic tourism after the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on travel plans all over Thailand. Then a third wave of coronavirus poured cold water on all the excitement, just as it was about to heat up. But can anyone really say they were taken by surprise by the setback, given the lack of preparedness on the ground, both from the side of the authorities, as well as the public?
Optimism was high and the outlook seemed extraordinarily bright, especially after the first two batches of the novel coronavirus vaccine from Sinovac arrived, as they allowed Thailand to begin inoculating frontline workers and other at-risk individuals against the fast-spreading, fatal disease.
Stimulus cheques were disbursed to kick-start the economy's recovery, travel subsidies were approved, and plans were drafted to restart tourism on a bigger scale.
Just over two weeks ago, plans to reopen Phuket to vaccinated international tourists on July 1 were approved by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) -- albeit on the condition that 70% of the island's population has been vaccinated against Covid-19. At least five other provinces are planning to scrap quarantine requirements for inoculated foreign arrivals, starting on Oct 1.
These announcements and incentives, coupled with the growing weariness of pandemic restrictions, created the illusion of security -- that here in Thailand, all is well and under control -- which led to decreasing compliance and lax enforcement of public health and safety rules.
Compared to the earlier months of the pandemic, fewer people are making the conscious effort to check in (and check out, which is just as important) on the Thai Chana application, and even fewer businesses are really serious about making entry to their premises conditional upon registering visits on the app. As a result, contact tracing is slower and testing delays longer, which means more people have to be tested for each confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis.
As a study published in the Lancet last year found that effective app-based contact tracing can decrease the virus' reproductive rate by 17.6% -- as opposed to just 2.5% through manual tracing -- there needs to be a more concerted effort to ensure all visits are recorded, especially since if all goes according to plan, the second half of this year will see international tourists return to some of Thailand's top tourism destinations.
This is of paramount importance, as several recent cases -- including Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who received his first dose of vaccine a few weeks ago -- suggest that inoculations alone won't confer full protection against the disease.
As with every tracker in existence, Thai Chana poses a privacy risk, but when the end goal is reopening the country to the world in the middle of a pandemic, something has got to give. Compliance has to be ramped up because the only other option is to accelerate the inoculation programme, which isn't going as fast as it should be, considering the July 1 deadline and the preceding Songkran holiday period, which the government had been promoting as part of its plan to restart the economy.
Since the government launched the nation's Covid-19 inoculation drive about six weeks ago, only 7,121 Bangkok residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the government. Considering Bangkok has over 10 million residents, the figure represents less than 1% of the population -- far less than the 70% needed to achieve herd immunity.
Inoculations are going at a slightly faster rate in Phuket, where vaccines are being administered to the general population, but even then the island's authorities are on edge trying to keep the Thong Lor cluster -- which originated in the capital and involves the more contagious virus strain first found in the United Kingdom -- under control.
Yesterday, the resort island logged 17 new infections cases, bringing its total during the third wave to 43. Given the slow pace of vaccinations, and no travel restrictions in place this time around, one can only hope the island's health authorities and frontline workers are vigilant enough to prevent another outbreak from emerging and spiralling out of control.
Public cooperation will be needed to prove that the island's tourism model is replicable elsewhere, which will bode well for the country's effort to reopen to foreign tourists.
Until compliance with public health guidelines increases and vaccinations are ramped up, the government should reconsider the impact of its messages on the public.
But more importantly, the situation over the past few weeks should serve as a reminder to everyone that the pandemic isn't over yet, and premature celebrations now may jeopardise the country's prospects of reopening later in the year.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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