Make the best of the re-opening
After much dilly-dallying, the national vaccination programme finally launched last week, with around 400,000 doses administered across the country on the first day alone. With the promised cure now being distributed, the public can now start to see the government's plan for reopening taking shape, improving the general mood and outlook across the country.
In Phuket, for instance, more businesses have kickstarted their plans to resume operations, in anticipation of the much-touted July 1 reopening date, though many will undoubtedly have to adjust their services to stay in line with the government's public health and safety guidelines. For now, bars and clubs will remain closed after several clusters were traced back to such venues in recent weeks. That said, the rest of the island will undoubtedly welcome any relief which tourist income would bring to the Covid-hit local economy.
Seemingly spurred on by the jab rollout, chambers of commerce and provincial administrations of tourist-reliant areas have come up with similar reopening plans of their own, with tentative dates set later in the year. Officials in Chiang Mai, where annual tourism revenue more than halved when the pandemic began last year, are closely watching Phuket's so-called Sandbox model, as they wish to emulate the scheme in the northern province in Aug 1.
Eager to secure the first slice of the tourism pie, authorities on Koh Samui in Surat Thani have also asked the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to approve its plan to reopen on July 1. More destinations will undoubtedly follow suit, if their respective "sandboxes" worked and infections remain low.
As prudent as planning ahead is, authorities must take into account the realities on the ground. If they really want these provinces to reopen to international tourism, those in power must realise there are many issues which need to be addressed first before any more reopening plan can be approved.
First of all, despite all of the optimism surrounding the launch of the national vaccination programme, one fact still stands true -- for all its past successes in keeping previous waves of Covid-19 infections under control, when it comes to vaccinating the population, Thailand lags far behind its closest neighbours. With around 5% of the population jabbed, according to a Reuters tally on June 10, the kingdom's vaccination rate is only head of the Philippines (4.6%) and Vietnam (>1%).
In other words, in Southeast Asia, Thailand is only doing marginally better than a nation which had deliberately left out Chinese-made vaccines from its national inoculation programme due to their longstanding rivalry. Doesn't that put the whole comprehensive, strategic partnership into perspective?
What this means is that despite all the media blitz and expensive influencer engagement, the road towards achieving herd immunity required for a full reopening won't be as picture perfect as the government had promised. Despite the lack of information from Siam Bioscience (which has been contracted to produce AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine in Thailand for the region) concerning output levels, it is clear that the company is struggling to meet local demands while meeting its contractual obligations to foreign buyers. Without enough vaccines to cover at least 70% of the population, the government will be forced to only partially reopen destinations, the way Phuket will be on July 1.
Will this be enough to attract foreign tourists, given the current 14-day stay requirement? In this stressed-out climate, people are ready to grasp at any chance to have a break, but this two-week sandbox stay simply can't compete with what other destinations are offering at the moment. Any cost-advantage of holidaying in Thailand is effectively wiped out by the minimum stay requirement, making it as expensive as a destination for European travellers as the Mediterranean or the Dalmatian coast -- where many businesses are also offering deep discounts to attract foreign tourists back, with the added perks of no quarantine.
If the pandemic was a race, Thailand has lost any lead it may have had over other countries in the region. But there is no use in crying over spilt milk, so what the government can do is learn from the experience of other nations which began their inoculation programmes earlier. From Hong Kong, for instance, authorities should know that even a traditionally compliant society can show extraordinary resistance to Covid-19 vaccination when trust in the government sinks to an all-time low. From Singapore, officials should know that inoculation programmes mean little if those on the lowest rungs of society -- including migrant workers -- aren't covered.
But the bottom line here is that for Thailand to reclaim its lead and for life to return to normal, the government must ramp up the national vaccination programme and be transparent and consistent in providing information.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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