Our unhealthy holiday
Many Thais have hit the road to enjoy the long Songkran holidays this week, but I can't help feeling that this Thai New Year will be a weird one. Normally, people enjoy the water festival that comes at the peak of the hot summer in April by splashing each other with enthusiasm, along with more subdued observances such as pouring water on elders' hands, asking for blessings and making merit.
But for a second year running, water splashing is off the menu, thanks to Covid-19. We thought there might be a slim chance of a return to normal this month, but a new wave of infections, including the highly contagious UK variant, has doused those hopes. To be honest, I can't decide whether to stay put where I am or to return home, with the possibility of carrying the virus to be spread to my parents, elderly relatives or other family members.
Adding to my worries is the reluctance of the government and the Covid-19 taskforce to impose more concrete measures to curb the latest spread. Yes, they've closed a lot of pubs in a lot of provinces, but authorities don't want to impose travel curbs as the economic cost would be severe. Still, many provinces are now demanding that people from hotspots like Bangkok quarantine for 14 days, so many travel cancellations were being reported late last week.
The UK variant known as B.1.1.7, which is up to 70% more transmissible than existing coronavirus strains, has been found in a cluster of visitors to entertainment venues. At least 10 Thai cabinet ministers and dozens of lawmakers are self-isolating after coming into contact with people who tested positive.
Besides Thailand, India and South Korea faced mounting coronavirus infections last week, undermining cautious hopes that Asia might be emerging from the worst of the pandemic, while worries about vaccine safety threatened to delay vaccination drives.
India on Thursday reported a record 126,789 new cases, catching by surprise authorities who have blamed crowding and a reluctance to wear masks as shops and offices reopen. The alarming numbers have led to New Zealand putting a temporary ban on anyone arriving from India.
Thailand, which has been planning a cautious reopening of its tourist industry, reported 964 new cases last Thursday and Friday alone, in more than 20 provinces. Infections spiked by 545 last Thursday in Japan, where vaccinations are far behind those in most major Asian economies.
Asia's increasing cases come as worries are growing over the safety of one of the main vaccines against the virus. South Korea, the Philippines and Australia have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 60 because of possible links to blood clots, though Taiwan has said it would continue to use it. Thailand is counting on having millions of AZ doses for its free public inoculation programme, currently ranked 129th out of 149 countries in terms of the proportion of vaccinated adults.
European health regulators have concluded that clotting is a "very rare" side effect of the AZ vaccine and they recommend that countries continue to use the vaccine. But that might not be enough to restore public confidence.
The global preoccupation with Covid has drawn attention away from World Health Day, which was held on April 7 to promote global health awareness. In Southeast Asia, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory problems and diabetes remain major causes of mortality.
The prolonged Covid outbreak has undercut recent health gains in nearly every part of the world. It has also pushed more people into poverty and food insecurity, and amplified gender, social and health inequities.
The pandemic has hit all countries hard, but its impact has been harshest on those communities that were already vulnerable, who are more exposed to the disease and less likely to have access to quality healthcare services.
Back at home, the recent spike in cases has emerged mainly because many of us have lowered our guard, including officials. And I do hope the Thai authorities come up with decisive actions in time to curb the spread.
Of course, we all want to experience the joy of reuniting with loved ones after over a year of isolation and, for many, depression. But safety should be the top priority.
As the Dalai Lama says, "Happiness is the highest form of health". Happy Songkran everyone!