Govt oblivious to senselessness of Covid-19 curbs

Govt oblivious to senselessness of Covid-19 curbs

When the whole country saw how the prime minister was nonchalantly teasing reporters and giggling in front of the camera last Friday, we didn't know that it was just the beginning of a series of mishaps.

On Saturday afternoon, over 400 construction camps in Bangkok and peripheral areas were closed, following the semi-lockdown imposed by the government. It turned out that the order, which aimed to keep workers contained inside the camp, ended up being counterproductive. Without knowing until late on that the government would provide food and financial support, hundreds of workers, at a conservative estimate, packed their bags and headed home before the order took effect on Monday.

To make it worse, the government that evening also issued another one-month eat-in ban on the food industry after midnight, also effective on Monday. Again, it did not announce a financial subsidy or compensation in advance.

In the latest semi-lockdown, the construction industry will definitely be affected, but it is the first time that this sector has been ordered to shut down, and financial help was swiftly offered. It is likely the sector will easily rebound after this quasi-lockdown ends.

But the food industry will not; restaurant operators have already been bled dry by two prior sets of lockdown measures, and the latest "semi-lockdown" is, for them, tantamount to a death row sentence.

Several dozen infuriated restaurant owners challenged the state by launching a campaign of civil disobedience loosely translated as, "I want to open [my restaurant], will you have a problem?", while a group of customers, who sympathised, chimed in with their own "I want to eat in, will you have a problem?" campaign.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon was quick to blast the campaign, saying the government has been working hard to help every sector, by subsidising half of every worker's pay cheque. "What else do you need?"

Half of a monthly pay cheque is 7,500 baht for those registered with the Social Security Office. Non-registered Thai workers in Bangkok and five neighbouring provinces will receive 2,000 baht in cash relief. Business operators will receive compensation ranging from 3,000 to 600,000 baht, depending on the number of employees they have.

Despite the outcry from restaurant operators, the prime minister appeared nonchalant. On Thursday, the prime minister and his health team were enjoying the sun, sand and sea in Phuket at the inauguration of the Sandbox scheme to welcome back tourists.

It's obvious that the government is oblivious to the problem. These meagre cash handouts won't be sufficient to support restaurant owners facing bankruptcy and thousands of workers who will be out of a job.

Former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala likened the draconian ban to the killing of a mother cow whose milk could have fed the people, including workers. As the government slaughtered the cow, or SMEs, it has taken out a 1.5 trillion-baht loan for relief packages which is like buying milk from the shop instead to feed the people. The post-Covid economy is expected to remain sour for at least another one or two years.

I can't agree more with the former finance minister in this case. Reducing opening hours means operators will make less income. Dining in is a major source of revenue for restaurants and, at the same time, creates employment.

The eat-in ban resembles a punishment on a sector which has largely abided by physical distancing rules. The ban also affects the musicians and singers who often perform while patrons eat.

The ban doesn't make sense because not everyone can work from home. Many don't have a desk or office pantry for a proper lunch. Do we expect cleaners to eat in their "office" -- aka toilet? Or sales staff in shopping malls to eat from takeaway boxes at a sitting area provided by the mall? Isn't it more hygienic to eat in food courts?

After three outbreaks, none of the super-spreaders have been legally punished nor have the powers that be taken any responsibility. The news that the parliament was to probe the politicians in the coalition government accused of going to the Krystal Club in the Thong Lor area, the origin of a notorious cluster in April, is a distant memory. With daily hikes in the death toll and more infections, the time bomb has clearly exploded due to failed vaccination management. Isn't it about time for the government to take responsibility?

The more restaurants go out of business, the more unskilled workers lose their jobs; and the longer it will take for the country to recover. And with these constant senseless bans, Thailand doesn't seem likely to bounce back anytime soon.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai

Columnist

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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