The Covid-19 pandemic chaos has worsened in Bangkok and its vicinity in the past week. With the rise of cases, the arrival of new variants, dubious vaccine deliveries and a lack of hospital ICU beds, people are becoming more infuriated about how the government is handling the Covid situation.
Their trust in the government has eroded.
Its failure is not just proven by the rise in new cases -- more than 6,000, plus 60 fatalities recently. People are reported to be having difficulty getting Covid tests. In the past week, a couple of my friends in Bangkok rushed to hospital after one of their family members interacted with a high-risk person. But their requests for Covid-19 tests were rejected as hospital staff admitted they lacked testing kit materials.
There are reports about people having to call upon "special connections" to get a Covid test. Otherwise, they will end up like those reaching out to state facilities, many of which require you to arrive at 5am to get a queue number and wait in line for at least half a day to get a test.
After 18 months of the Covid pandemic, Thailand looks like the Titanic on the verge of sinking while desperate passengers dug out whatever they had -- connections, money or even conniving tricks -- to get a seat on a lifeboat.
The scene is a gulf apart from last year when the authority was exemplary in managing the pandemic. Why is a country praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its effective pandemic management last year compared to a sinking boat right now? I will answer you with a striking scene observed by the nation last week.
On July 1, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and some cabinet members flew to Phuket to celebrate its border reopening, known as the Phuket Sandbox scheme.
They welcomed international tourists arriving at Phuket International Airport while airport staff standing nearby applauded.
Water was spouted from two high-pressure jets, forming a water tunnel above the first international tourist flight since the island was shut down by the pandemic last year.
During his visit, Gen Prayut took the podium in the hall of Phuket's largest department store to speak about his delight with the reopening. He and his cabinet also took a break near the glittering sea, wearing no masks.
One reporter asked him, "Why are you here when the number of deaths [from Covid-19] is soaring to a peak?" Our prime minister did not answer and walked away.
Indeed, the reopening of Phuket is vital to local businesses and workers who have worked with authorities to vaccinate 70% of the local population in recent months. They hope it will bring life back to the economy.
But it does not make any sense for the PM, his entourage and cabinet to fly to Phuket when people in the capital are battling the pandemic. Patients are waiting on ICU beds in hospitals. Medical staff are tired. More patients have died and their families need help and consolation.
The prime minister again squandered a chance to prove he is a leader who can connect with people. During these dire times, he chose to present his face at the flower-decorated Phuket airport and sunny beach instead of rubbing shoulders with people and medical staff in Bangkok.
Our prime minister has been known for making PR blunders. But this is one of his biggest faux pas.
To put it in perspective, the scene in Phuket speaks volumes about the act of face-saving that underlines Thai culture, especially in politics and bureaucracy. Face saving can make nice people or even promising leaders shun honest criticism and harsh reality. And when you open your ears only to music, you end up losing the opportunity to improve.
Face-saving often breeds blame-shifting. Noteworthy is that our prime minister has been reported as blaming people for the spread of the virus, despite most major cluster infections being the outcome of corruption and nepotism -- not to mention the notorious cluster infection stemming from the Krystal Club in Sukhumvit's Thong Lor area, or even the army's boxing ring -- the first cluster infection in the country.
Another cause of Covid mismanagement is the decision-making process. In April, the prime minister consolidated over 30 laws on Covid measures in his own hands, in keeping with the top-down military-style of leadership he is so familiar with.
His government is overconfident about the health system and universal healthcare coverage, with little effort put into preparing for a worst-case scenario.
With power concentrated in one person, we need a leader who can deliver good judgement and harness public trust. Both qualities are instilled in leaders who open their hearts to information and accept criticism.
Needless to say, Prime Minister Prayut's judgement is questionable.
One glaring example is the decision to ban dining in restaurants, despite the low ratio of confirmed cases linked to restaurants. Meanwhile, police and soldiers failed to control the movement of runaway construction workers and migrant workers.
Another example is vaccine procurement and distribution. Despite research showing that mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna have higher efficacy especially against the Delta variant, the government is steadfastly importing Chinese-made vaccines.
The government ignores calls from citizens and private hospitals to speed up negotiations with mRNA vaccine manufacturers. Instead, it has purchased even more Sinovac, raising questions about deals between the government and the Chinese company.
Good leadership is one key factor in getting countries through the crisis. Thailand can do better if it has open-minded leaders who don't point fingers at others -- not to mention the public.
It is not too late for our prime minister to listen to critics and make decisions based on quality data. Surely, that's not too much to ask.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.