Pork crisis rubs salt into government wounds
Despite numerous presents from the government over the New Year celebrations, the public's jovial spirit was quickly dampened by a rush of bad news, first and foremost, the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and reports of African swine fever (ASF) wreaking havoc on the pig farming industry.
It should be noted that shortly before the emergence of the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha had just proudly declared victory over pandemic, with better controls tamping down infection cases, and lower fatalities; while the target to administer 100 million doses of vaccines had been met. Unfortunately, Omicron has threatened the health sector, and worsened economic hardship.
ASF, meanwhile, has caused a wide-ranging effect on both farm operators and consumers. Due to massive deaths of swine, may pig farmers have been forced out of business and in many cases bankrupted. The pork shortage is causing prices to soar, from 150 baht/kg to 210-240 baht/kg, in just a few weeks. This has had an inflationary chain reaction on other food and goods prices. And as the cost of living goes up, the minimum wage barely flickers.
Such mishaps can easily evaporate people's happiness, and 2022 looks set to be another annus horribilis for Thais.
In fact, the public have every reason to get angry with the government's poor handling of the ASF crisis, and the Department of Livestock Development (DLD) in particular.
The government made us believe it had put up a strong guard against the virus. The Prayut government has been preparing for an ASF pandemic since 2019 when one was first reported in China a year earlier, before it spread to 35 countries including some Asean members.
After the 2019 election, Gen Prayut in his capacity as caretaker prime minister set tackling the swine virus as a top national agenda item, with a preventive action plan and budget to boot. From 2020-2021, the government -- upon learning about the impact of ASF in neighbouring countries -- allocated 1 billion baht for a campaign to contain it. This was overseen by a special task force under Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanavisit, who is also the commerce minister.
Thailand used to take pride in being a reliable supplier of hygienic pork to the world, until recently.
Now rumours are swirling that ASF may have hit the country for quite some time, given that a number of pig farm operators struggled to rationalise all the pig culling that was being carried out in numerous areas. This occurred without serious interventionist measures from the state, particularly the DLD, which had brushed aside concerns about ASF, saying the country was free of the disease. The department instead blamed porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), considered a common and curable disease.
Such a sluggish reaction has caused the public to suspect there may have been a cover-up aimed at benefitting agro giants at the expense of small-scale farmers, mainly of whom fell destitute. The crisis has also threatened to ruin the pork export business. As the problem worsens, public pressure against the department and the government is also heightening.
This week the DLD finally admitted it had found an infection at a slaughterhouse in Nakhon Pathom.
The admission came too late, especially as deans of the veterinary medicinal faculties at 14 institutes claimed they had already sent a wake-up call to the DLD about this much earlier. DLD chief Soravit Thanito, however, claimed he had never seen the letter.
At the same time, so-called graftbuster Srisuwan Janya came up with evidence that ASF had been detected at a pig farm in Chiang Rai in 2019. He said he is now digging up which companies benefited from the alleged cover-up.
The opposition bloc has vowed to grill the government over the pork crisis in the next House meeting.
Whether is it a cover-up or just an underestimation on the part of the government, the pork crisis is likely to have a long-lasting impact. There were 18 million pigs for domestic consumption and another one million for export. The number of pigs has since fallen to 13 million, which threatens local consumption and small pig farmers.
All of these crises have dashed Gen Prayut's hopes of smoothly riding out the last year of his tenure, or that the pro-democracy movement would slowly subside. The high cost of living has eroded public confidence in the government. Even Gen Prayut's fans are agitated, urging him to handle these problems more efficiently.
Most likely the DLD chief will face the chop, rather than fellow Democrats who run the Agriculture Ministry and Commerce Ministry. But as the leader of the government, Gen Prayut needs to step up.
Of course, Gen Prayut and his government may yet ride out the political turbulence and complete its term. But with their support nose-diving, the voting public will be the real superheroes when the election comes.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.