A million volunteers help curb coronavirus infections

A million volunteers help curb coronavirus infections

Village health volunteers wearing face masks and shields ride a motorcycle during visits to houses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Ang Thong province, May 27, 2020. (Reuters file photo)
Village health volunteers wearing face masks and shields ride a motorcycle during visits to houses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Ang Thong province, May 27, 2020. (Reuters file photo)

Thailand is banking on an army of volunteer community health workers, tight border controls and acceptance of social distancing to reopen its economy, after a lockdown prevented a large novel coronavirus outbreak.

The nation -- the first to detect the illness outside of China -- has kept infections to about 3,100. New daily Covid-19 cases were mostly in the single digits for the past month, allowing officials to relax the lockdown gradually.

Restaurants and shopping malls are open again and many hotels are accepting bookings from domestic tourists. As activity picks up, one part of the strategy to avoid a second virus wave is a network of more than 1 million health volunteers who monitor for cases so action can be taken quickly.

“They’re the public health foot soldiers,” said Richard Brown, a World Health Organization official in Bangkok who has been directing the body’s Covid-19 response in Thailand. He added that the country’s capacity to quickly carry out contact tracing helped to limit local transmission.

The volunteers undertake tasks such as checking for symptoms and assessing whether new arrivals to a village or city should be tested. For instance, they detected case number 3,018, an asymptomatic 39-year-old man who returned to family in Chiang Mai after working in Phuket.

The population is generally adhering to government guidelines on distancing and hygiene. Nearly everyone wears masks in public and about two-thirds try to keep two metres away from others, according to a Health Ministry survey.

“Thai society has high social capital,” Brown said. “The sense of duty toward other people is really quite strong.”

At the same time, the possibility of a second wave can’t be ruled out, so the government will continue to stress distancing, masks and stepped up cleanliness, he said.

Investors are looking past the threat of another wave and have turned more optimistic. Thai equities are on course to erase pandemic-induced losses this year, and valuations reached a record after earnings estimates were slashed.

The rally is continuing even though life is still far from normal. Thailand remains under a state of emergency, and most incoming international flights are banned through June. Only foreigners from regions where the virus is under control are expected to be allowed in after that.

That’s a major challenge for a country that relied on tourism for about a fifth of gross domestic product before the global pandemic hit. The national planning agency expects the economy to shrink as much as 6% this year, imperiling millions of jobs.

“The opening up of businesses and domestic travel should help alleviate part of the severe blow from the lack of foreign tourists,” said Naris Sathapholdeja, chief economist at TMB Bank Plc in Bangkok. “But we can’t expect a full recovery. People are very cautious about spending.”


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