Sweeping powers may be PM's undoing

Sweeping powers may be PM's undoing

A man walks past a tent where Klong Toey residents register for active case finding conducted by health officials of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A man walks past a tent where Klong Toey residents register for active case finding conducted by health officials of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

If Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha cannot curb the latest domestic wave of Covid-19 quickly, public confidence in his administration could wane to the point of crisis.

Dismay at the government's handling of the situation and hold-ups in its vaccination programme have been compounded by inefficient and delayed transfers to hospital for the infected due to shortages of beds.

And there are no reasons for optimism just yet, either. The infection rate that surged after the Thong Lor cluster was detected in April remains in quadruple digits most days, while the death toll mounts.

The stakes for the embattled prime minister are high after granting himself the legal authority to take sole charge of most aspects of virus control and jettisoning ministers from coalition partners from the line of command. It's the same strategy he employed during the early stages of the pandemic, but this time things are much more serious, with the Klong Toey cluster posing just one of many deadly new challenges. The leaders of the Bhumjaithai Party, a major coalition partner, have made no attempt to hide their distress at being sidelined by the premier in this latest round of musical chairs.

The Covid conundrum comes at a bad time for Gen Prayut given his dwindling popularity. Could this be a political seven-year itch? Whatever it is, we should not underestimate public disenchantment with the prime minister following his failures to keep to his promise of only a temporary stay in politics after the bloodless coup of 2014.

On the contrary, seven years on, there are no signs of him relinquishing power anytime soon. Time and again the prime minister has made use of the military-sponsored charter to maintain his chokehold at the top. He almost doesn't need the aid of military-leaning independent organisations to get rid of enemies. Almost.

A military background that has codified his belief in the value of absolute power may ultimately undermine his efforts to defeat a foe against which power alone poses little threat.

Only a rapidly deployed and comprehensive vaccination programme has the potential to be a real solution, but so far that has not proven possible to get underway.

The numbers don't lie.

As the infections soar, with accumulated cases at 78,855 as of yesterday, jabs are being dished out at a snail's pace of around 10,000 doses per day if we're lucky. The goal of 300,000 vaccinations a day seems a long way away.

The government has attempted to readjust accordingly by extending collaboration with the private sector, but will this work to secure public confidence? Unlikely.

Moreover, while the government urges the people to abide by the law in order to curb the outbreak, the way it is dealing with the Thong Lor cluster, which turned out to be a virus timebomb, has let the public down enormously. Without efficient handling, the Thong Lor cluster spilled over into Klong Toey, and that has proved to be a disaster.

While the latest wave has had a colossal impact on the economy, only the small fish -- the respective managers of the entertainment venues that made Thong Lor a coronavirus epicentre -- have been penalised. No "Great Whites" have been held to account after a police investigation which led nowhere. Police asked for a month to wrap up the case, but they got nowhere. A group of gambling tycoons running casinos along the Thai-Cambodian border known to have visited the entertainment venues, transmitting the virus to clients and workers, have yet to be named.

Will the prime minister's absolute power make any difference to the Thong Lor case? So far, the arm of the law has not reached the actual owners of the entertainment venues that operated without proper licences, and breached restrictions regarding their hours of operation under the emergency decree. The police officers who turned a blind eye to these breaches have not been punished either.

There are rumours that the authorities may never unravel the Thong Lor case largely because of the owners' connections to a high-ranking police officer.

What use are sweeping powers when the culprits are known but remain free?

We have no idea if the government will successfully manage to curb the pandemic but the ongoing rise in the infection rate, despite lockdown measures in red-alert areas, does not give us much hope.

Dr Prasit Wattnanapa, dean of Siriraj Hospital's Medicine Faculty, has warned of the collapse of the public health system if the number of cases doesn't drop soon. After a few good days, yesterday saw 2,044 new cases and 27 deaths.

As the health authorities and city officials race against time to manage the Klong Toey hotspot, it will become clearer over the next two weeks whether they can reign in the cluster which has already spread to other areas. The current vaccination plan for the country's biggest slum community, at 3,000 per day, is clearly not nearly aggressive enough to be effective.

It's no exaggeration to say the countdown has begun, and we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Gen Prayut may have to learn the hard way that sweeping powers come with sweeping responsibility too.

The prime minister has survived his political challenges so far, but Covid-19 could prove be his undoing as what began as turbulence snowballs into a tsunami.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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