One man alone can't solve Covid crisis

One man alone can't solve Covid crisis

THINK PRAGMATIC

Klong Toey residents go about their daily lives as usual despite low testing and vaccination rates amid an active outbreak. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
Klong Toey residents go about their daily lives as usual despite low testing and vaccination rates amid an active outbreak. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

On April 27, the cabinet made Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha Thailand's most powerful man, by giving him single command over every aspect of the nation's effort to tackle Covid-19 and the treatment of those infected by the disease.

These powers were once vested in his colleagues within the government, among them the ministers of public health, commerce, education, finance, interior and transport, among others.

Yet the UK-variant of the Covid-19 virus continues to thrive here, wreaking havoc while showing no signs of slowing down. The infection curve is still on the rise, and the strain doesn't seem to care about the PM's new status.

Daily new infections have been hovering between 1,000-2000+ cases for more than a week now, and Bangkok has become the undisputed champion in terms of new cases, similar to Samut Sakhon earlier in the year. On Saturday, the City of Angels recorded 1,112 new infections, way ahead of other provinces.

It is obvious that a single man alone won't be able to stop, or even contain the virus. Power can't prevent that man from making serious mistakes or make him any smarter.

Thailand is in a state of insecurity, with the public in danger of losing confidence that their leader will be able to lead the country through this crisis. Many, especially those in Bangkok, are worried about the slightest sign they may have a fever, which is actually quite common during the rainy season.

Had the prime minister had the courage to do the right thing, such as imposing travel restrictions during the Songkran festival or at least postponing the long holiday, tens of thousands would have cancelled their planned journeys out of Bangkok and the country would have been that much safer.

But, alas, they went back home in hordes because the prime minister made the wrong decision, which for some has proved to be fatal. In his own words, he said he didn't want to hurt the people who have suffered enough financially from the impact of Covid since last year.

But the opposite is true. They are now in even more pain and misfortune. Over the weekend, the prime minister said he had just made several important decisions. First, he ordered the procurement of 50 million additional doses of vaccines from various sources to ensure every Thai will be inoculated, as well as to keep some in reserve for future use.

Second, he said half of the population will be inoculated against Covid-19 by July. And, third, he instructed state agencies to become more aggressive in negotiating to acquire Covid vaccines.

That said, all of these decisions could have been taken by a prime minister without extraordinary powers. All the powers vested in him by the cabinet has not given him the aura of a respected leader that Thais can trust, as their saviour from the grip of the Covid pandemic.

Take as an example the outbreak in the slums of Klong Toey. The best that he has done so far is to order the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to send medics there to carry out active screening. City Hall aims to screen only 20,000 out of the 80,000-plus registered residents there, at a rate of 1,000 tests per day. Meanwhile, in this critical period, anyone can freely move in and out of the slums as normal.

It is a well-known fact that the slum is home to many of the capital's low-income earners, most of whom are living on daily wages. It is a huge source of unskilled labourers for the city, with its men and women working in various parts of the city as drivers, maids, delivery riders and so on.

Today, it is a hotbed of Covid-19 infections, posing a real challenge to the BMA and the prime minister. However, both seem to be treating the cluster infections there as if it were normal, without any sense of urgency.

With a target of screening 1,000 people a day, it will take around 20 days to screen the 20,000 residents it is targeting, which is far too slow. By the time the tests are completed, how many more people would have been infected?

Why is it only testing just 20,000 people? Is the governor so sure that the rest are free of the virus, considering the cramped living conditions in the slum, just like the shrimp market in Samut Sakhon? Can the BMA speed up the screening? Or the BMA does not have the mobile labs need?

Has anyone ever wondered why royally donated mobile testing units are the ones seen at all Covid hotspots, conducting active screenings? Does this mean the Public Health Ministry and the government do not own their own and have to rely on HM the King's mobile testing labs?

The way the BMA and the prime minister are handling the situation in Klong Toey is like a never-ending chase, and they will never catch up with it so long as they do not shut down the slum and prevent people from leaving and entering for a certain period of time. This would allow health officials to completely screen the slums for the virus -- not just the 20,000 people it is currently targeting -- and separate those who are infected from those who are free of the virus.

In the meantime, the prime minister must invoke his supreme powers to compensate those isolated inside for their lost income, so they don't have to be worried about feeding their families.

The government should lock down the Klong Toey slum as is the only reasonable means to contain the virus, just as it did in Samut Sakhon earlier this year. Yet our commander remains hesitant, just like the same old Prayut. Don't forget that we are at war and the enemy is killing us. Anything that can be done now must be done, and quickly. When will Prime Minister Prayut learn from his past mistakes? Or will he wait for the situation to go out of control before he locks down Bangkok?

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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