Korn looks beyond 'new normal' as nation struggles back to its feet
Leader of the new Kla Party believes public health system's success can usher in economic opportunities
Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, had kept a low profile in politics for many years until he launched the new "Kla" ("bold") Party in February this year.
Like other highly influential people in the country, his perspective on the recent global coronavirus outbreak provides a valuable insight into how Thailand can plot a course into an uncertain post-pandemic future.
In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Korn shared his experiences in fighting Covid-19 and his perception of what a "new normal" will really entail.
"Thailand is facing two main challenges in its transition to a new normal – a challenge to our way of life and a challenge to our economy. As for social distancing, I think it will affect our education system in particular as that still requires a gathering of people."
As a father of three, the former finance minister cannot help but be concerned about education during a time in which schools have the potential to become hotbeds of infection.
"Life has pretty much returned to normal now but I think our learning and teaching system is still struggling. For me, new normal in education doesn't mean that children go to school every other day. That's just a temporary measure, so I don't want to call it the new normal.
"These are unreasonable measures, in my opinion. Having kids keeping their distance at school and attending only every other day while passengers can sit together on public buses is contradictory."
In terms of the economy, the Kla Party leader thinks the biggest issue is that the country still cannot reopen, not as long as people want the daily infection rate to be zero.
"It is nearly impossible to reopen if Thailand cannot accept more than zero infections per day. The government is afraid to put the country at risk as they might not be able to explain if the virus re-enters Thailand. They still have to be on high alert."
The investment banker-turned politician also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has raised a question over whether the government should decentralise power to local authorities. He gave an example of the Phuket tourism industry which proposed that the government approve travel bubble deals with some countries such as Japan, South Korea and China for quicker screening of tourists.
"Allowing foreign travellers in will definitely pose more risks, but the economy and people's livelihoods must also be taken into account," he remarked.
"There will be questions over who should have the power to make decisions – the prime minister or provincial governors. There will also be many more questions that challenge the new normal in many aspects, including that of whether the bureaucratic power should be decentralised to local administrations more.
"The government must create a balance between keeping the economy afloat and controlling the virus. Impacts on the economy are inevitable. When will Thailand see 40 million tourists a year again? The answer is definitely not this year or next."
When asked about his political party, Mr Korn said he formed the Kla Party as Covid-19 hit Thailand at the beginning of this year.
"Luckily for us, we had carried out all the activities that required meetings of our team, such as to select our executive, before the lockdown."
The Kla Party was officially approved by the Election Commission on June 29 when the government started to ease its Covid-19 measures.
In terms of the pandemic's impact on his own life outside of politics, Mr Korn said his routine had been no different from everyone else's during the lockdown as he stayed indoors.
"I think people sometimes spend too lavishly – eating out and travelling, for example. But during the pandemic, I noticed that people near me began to think and plan more, and cook at home more, which is a good thing, although not so much for the restaurant industry. Travelling abroad is also now out of the window."
He warned that businesses may face difficulties due to consumers' changing behaviour.
"Some people who always ate out started ordering in more after the pandemic hit and now they have become used to it. They have found that dining in, along with the many other activities that they can do at home such as online shopping, is actually comfortable," believes Mr Korn.
"Technology has become a lot more important to people's lives. Many people who used to be unfamiliar with technology can now use it better which I think is a good thing.
"I don't feel that we have lost much. We just have to adjust ourselves to things we no longer have. In many aspects, I think we don't have to go back to how things used to be."
When asked what the country will learn from this crisis. Mr Korn said he thinks what is really important is credibility and trust.
"Credibility in public health has never been this important before. In the past we were often concerned about security issues such as crime and political demonstrations when we travelled to other places. Right now public health is the only deciding factor. Our country's medical management is now our strength, our important capital."
The former minister said he believes that the Thai public health system has contributed to the country's quick recovery compared with other countries. It will also help boost overall confidence in Thailand, he said, citing his recent loss of faith in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK where his children are studying.
"When foreigners get sick in our country, we take good care of them. But for my children who are foreigners in another country, the signal that they are sending is that they are not ready to provide care for non-citizens.
"Our country's public health strength will greatly benefit us in the future, particularly in terms of investment. We can even expand the concept of work from home to 'work from Thailand' using our credible public health system to attract investors."