Our reopening looms, but are we really ready?

Our reopening looms, but are we really ready?

The country is set to reopen in two weeks but only two million, affordable rapid test kits have been made available and through only eight retail outlets of the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO), all located in Bangkok.

How ready are we to open our arms to foreign visitors without quarantine?

The government may have taken right path of choosing a balanced approach to suppress Covid-19 to the point where the public health system can take care of the sick while the rest of the population can go on with their lives and get the economy going.

Indeed, the question is not which way the government should proceed. The challenge before any administration is how to prepare for and manage the choice it made to ensure optimum benefits for the population.

The line differs from country to country.

There are those that opted to throw away face masks and lifted all Covid-19 restrictions like Denmark.

What did it take for the Danes to get there? A speedy vaccination rollout which saw more than 70% of the population fully inoculated and efficient control measures that kept the transmission rate low.

There is also Singapore, which initially pursued an aggressive zero-Covid strategy before turning around and opting to live with the disease.

Instead of restricting most people's lives, what the country had to do was conduct mass vaccination, vigorous contact tracing, ring-fence clusters and frequent mandatory testing among workers.

And there is Thailand, described by the CNN as having a "slow vaccine take-up but it's opening up anyway".

At present, about 25 million people or 35% of the population have been fully vaccinated. Daily new infections hover at around 10,000 while fatalities stand at between 60 to over 100, an average of about 1%.

The number of patients with severe symptoms was more than 2,800 yesterday, with another 644 on ventilators.

The rate of infection has come down from a seven-day average of about 25% among those tested to slightly above 14% last week.

The total number of Covid-19 tests done was about 14 million counting from January last year. There is no information on how many were done by RT-PCR and how many were from rapid test kits.

In declaring a reopening of the country on Nov 1, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha clearly wishes to extend the sandbox model implemented on the tourist island of Phuket to other areas with the aim of reviving the tourism sector, the main driver of the country's economy.

Last week, the PM said fully vaccinated tourists from at least 10 low-risk countries would be allowed to travel to the country without quarantine.

Among the first group of the countries classified as low-risk are the UK, Singapore, China and the US.

While there are questions whether Chinese tourists will travel to Thailand when the country has not fully reopened and whether the US is really low-risk, the key to the planned reopening scheme lies internally.

Considering our situation where the vaccination rate remains relatively low, much lower than Singapore's vaccine coverage of 81% or Malaysia's 66%, and daily infections still high, should the government have come up with supplementary measures to ensure it can hop successfully from a sandbox to a larger playground?

The rapid or antigen test kits (ATKs) are a case in point. It was ridiculous when the government first introduced the kits at a price of 250-300 baht per set. Think about the reopening scenario and how the ATK will have to be used as the main screening method for businesses which won't be able to rely on the more expensive and slower RT-PCR tests.

Imagine a restaurant. If you have to test all your staff, say 10 of them, everyday to ensure they are free of Covid-19 so as to put the minds of customers at ease, that would be an additional cost of 2,500 to 3,000 baht per day. How many would be able to afford it?

The GPO offering test kits for 40 baht is more like a joke. It's not just that only two million sets will be up for grabs but they are only available in Bangkok. How about those who live in other provinces? Does the GPO really believe two million sets are enough?

The thing is the GPO should not have proudly said that it is offering the ATKs at a price that is lower than the market as if it is doing a favour for the people.

The GPO should have made sure that the ATKs are available at this price range, if not for free, to ensure a successful Covid-19 control, or planned reopening for that matter, from the start. That it failed to do so while advertising a small, cosmetic attempt as if it were a great service, is not just bizarre. Indeed, it feels more like an insult.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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