In a swift move shortly after assuming office, Public Health Minister Dr Cholnan Srikaew rightly identified the country's low fertility rate issue as a pressing concern -- one that looms as a potential threat to the country's competitiveness and economic prospects in the years ahead.
In making declining birth rates a national agenda item, Dr Cholnan's proactive stance deserves commendation.
According to the National Statistical Office, the birthrate has declined since 2021, with only 540,000 newborns, compared to 900,000-1,000,000 during the years 1993-1996. 2021's birth rate marked the first time when the number of newborns fell below the number of deaths, which stood at 563,650.
The situation is getting worse, with only 502,000 births recorded last year -- a staggering 30% below the targeted 700,000 births. This places the nation at its lowest birth rate in 71 years, a dire scenario that experts rightfully label as a "crisis."
The consequences of this dwindling birth rate pose social and economic challenges. With children accounting for only about 16% of the population, the country cannot compete with neighbours with young and low-wage workforces.
Thailand has officially become an ageing society, with over 20% of the population aged 60 and above. Projections indicate that we will enter the realm of a super-aged society from 2031 when people aged 60 or above makes up 28% of the population, while the birth rate remains at a mere 0.76% annually. The future of the labour force looks forlorn with such a low birth rate.
According to the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, by 2040, children will make up a mere 13.3% of the population, while the working-age population will fall to 55.5%.
Simultaneously, the number of elderly is set to surge to 31.1%. These figures paint a bleak picture of a society struggling to balance the needs of its citizens with future economic viability.
Dr Cholnan says the causes of low fertility have been identified -- the rising cost of living, social inequality, life balance issues, and the changed role of women who assume more independence.
The government must deal with the fertility problem by taking a holistic approach.
Labour policy cannot only look to promote productivity; it needs to find how to create a work-life balance. To help couples create a family, sufficient financial assistance for children's education, healthcare and good housing must be provided.
The government also needs to educate couples on family planning and household financial investment. Pushing up the birth rate is not enough; local government and administration needs to foster town planning, health and environmental policies where children can live and prosper.
While efforts to boost fertility in Thailand have been ongoing for several years, meaningful progress remains elusive. The Public Health Ministry once provided free fertility pills to the public, and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry devised a national human resource development plan. However, these plans have often lacked effective implementation.
Dr Cholnan's initiative in raising this issue to national agenda status marks a promising beginning. What is now required is swift and tangible action, encompassing effective policies and the allocation of budgetary resources. Our nation's future hangs in the balance, and the time for meaningful change is upon us.