Corruption jeopardises reopening plan
As the countdown begins for the country's reopening, we find ourselves trapped in the same old dilemma that led to the series of Covid outbreaks this year, including the Thong Lor cluster in April that led to a cumulative total of 1.8 million coronavirus infections.
Under the reopening plan, foreign tourists from 46 "low-risk" countries can travel to Thailand from Nov 1 onward without needing to quarantine -- they just need to stay in a designated hotel for one night while waiting for their PCR test result. After that, they can visit designated areas in 17 provinces, such as Koh Chang in Trat province. While these soon-to-be-reopened areas have vaccination campaigns targeting 70% of the population, in reality, current rates across the country are still unsatisfactorily low.
The reopening plan, which follows the Phuket and Samui "Sandbox" model, is driven by economic reasons rather than a full recovery from the pandemic, as there has not been a significant decline in the number of new infections. Under such circumstances, some people are worried that the country is playing a high-stakes game.
It is true that an influx of tourists is unlikely in the initial reopening stage, given that the government has limited the entry of people from some countries. The government is aiming to plug all loopholes to avoid a new outbreak. However, we know that doing so is easier said than done.
For instance, unlike on Phuket and Samui islands, travel curbs are impossible in Bangkok or Chiang Mai as tourists can make their way beyond designated areas. Also, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration doesn't have travel restrictions in place.
The government needs to be aware that our vaccination rate is still below our 70% of the population target. No matter what the government tries to convey about its vaccination success, our campaign is still behind other countries that have reopened, like Singapore (79%), France (67%) and Denmark (75%). Even as health authorities accelerate the campaign, the figure from Our World in Data showed that only 36% of the Thai population had been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.
But the main concern for the country during this trying period is not foreigners who will be strictly screened by airlines before flying in. Our problems involve migrant smuggling, which remains active amid the pandemic. Also, some in the entertainment sector breach anti-coronavirus measures, putting the country at risk of another major outbreak, much in the same way infection clusters began at the seafood market in Samut Sakhon province in December and Bangkok's Thong Lor district early this year. It seems we have not learned anything.
Looking back at the Phuket Sandbox or Samui Plus campaign, foreign tourists did not cause clusters of infections to emerge during each promotional period. The real problem was unregulated travel by locals and illegal migrant workers.
Phuket authorities did well at the beginning of their reopening campaign. But after a while, unregulated land and sea travel by Thais and illegal migrants, particularly those in the fishery and construction sectors, triggered a new outbreak with about 200 new cases per day. Only 89 foreign tourists were infected from July 1 to Sept 11.
Samui Plus experienced a similar problem as a cluster of infections was detected in its entertainment sector shortly after reopening.
The public fully realises that little has been done to curb illegal migrant smuggling over the past few months. People smuggling networks, which have help from bad officials, are problematic. There has been a significant rise in the number of illegal migrants due to increasing demand for workers after curbs were eased. Last month alone, nearly 6,000 migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia were arrested, a record for the entire year. Each worker reportedly confessed they had been paid 5,000-20,000 baht each to work.
Supreme Commander Chalermpol Srisawat expects even more migrants will be sneaked into the country to meet demand for about 400,000 workers as the normal employment system has yet to be resumed. He said it is hard to crack down on those networks.
Over the past seven days, there have been several arrests in Kanchanaburi, Tak and Prachuap Khiri Khan, which border Myanmar. In Kanchanaburi, the number of arrested migrants was so high that detention cells in Sai Yok, Thong Pha Phum and Sangklaburi districts are now overcrowded.
Shockingly, of the more than 100 migrants from Myanmar arrested in Prachuap Khiri Khan over the past two weeks, 10% were infected with the more contagious Delta variant.
Making daily arrests does not mean the authorities are being efficient. It reflects a system infected with corruption-related negligence by some state officials. It should be noted that most of those arrests were minor offenders compared to the big fish who remain at large.
The Prayut Chan-o-cha government set up a panel tasked with probing labour smuggling earlier this year following the discovery of a major cluster of infections, but we have heard virtually nothing of its progress. Meanwhile, smuggling flourishes. This makes us question if the government is truly serious about cracking down -- or is it just a show?
Rampant violations of Covid regulations are seen in entertainment businesses in Bangkok. Some of these businesses remain open despite mandatory closing hours and many illegally sell alcoholic drinks while failing to respect social distancing rules. A crackdown early this week on an entertainment venue that netted 100 patrons opposite the Royal Thai Police headquarters showed that some business operators are confident about their connections that they they don't seem to care very much about laws and regulations. This reminds us of the culprits in the notorious Thong Lor cluster, who even today remain above the law.
All the Covid-19 debacles have been derived from corruption and dereliction of duty of state officials who turned a blind eye to legal violations by some business operators. Unless the government learns the lessons and truly tackle such malpractice, it will not be possible to keep the coronavirus at bay.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.