Politics, wealth and pandemics
Govt faces pressure as privileged few come in for criticism for exposing the struggling masses to further Covid misery v Thaksin looks to earn political points by taking aim at the country's vaccine roll-out programme
published : 24 Apr 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
The Prayut Chan-o-cha government tamed Covid-19 during the previous two outbreaks. The question is whether it can do it again with this third one?
A year ago when the first outbreak gave the country a taste of the public health and economic chaos to come, the government was chided for being ill-prepared and a step behind the spread of the virus.
The cabinet was on the receiving end of criticism for fumbling over what to do, prompting Gen Prayut to convene an urgent meeting of top medical professors and virologists and allowing them a free hand in designing and executing a national emergency response plan.
In the meantime, borders were shut one by one; tourism, that lays the golden foreign exchange eggs, was in tatters; while the economy shrank so much and so fast that relief programmes were rolled out to help large swathes of the population cope with the deepening impact of the crisis.
The second wave -- which erupted in Samut Sakhon's central shrimp market before being reinforced in gambling dens and by foreign migrants slipping into the country with the aid of unscrupulous officials at the end of last year -- jolted the authorities into toughening disease containment measures once again.
But as the government gained experience in straightening out the first wave and got more of a hang of the second, what it was having less of was money, because it had borrowed a lot to finance a long list of relief programmes.
The government gained political points after having successfully handled the first two outbreaks with a mix of flexible and decisive containment measures, such as the imposition of curfews and shortening opening hours of shops and restaurants. In parallel, the relief schemes were being carried out and health protection requirements, from the wearing of masks and social distancing rules, continued to be enforced.
Just when many thought things were beginning to look up and hopes grew of getting the economy back on track after the second Covid-19 wave, the third assault came. This time the catalyst came from patrons of two ritzy clubs in the upscale Thong Lor entertainment district.
Compared to the first two waves, the rate of virus transmission since this third round began at the start of the month has been faster. The has in part been put down to the UK variant of Covid-19. Daily infections have shot up from two-digit figures last year to more than a thousand now.
This has alarmed public health experts who warn of a shortage of hospital beds and severe pressure on health and medical workers, some of whom have been placed in isolation amid concern they might have contracted the virus.
The third wave has also landed right on the government's doorstep, which has been the reason why it is being politicised more and could be a bigger thorn in its side than the pandemic was during the first two outbreaks, according to a political observer.
Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob was alleged to have visited one of the two clubs where the latest cluster of infections originated after he contracted Covid-19.
The minister has flatly denied he frequented the clubs or tried to cover up his timelines. However, his denials have done little to stem growing anger among critics who insist the government and law enforcement authorities have implemented strict health safety regulations on the masses while sparing the rich and powerful.
The phrase: "the rich getting the infection and leaving the poor to pick up the pieces" is catching on which does not bode well for the government. It is now being held to account for dropping its guard and allowing the virus to spread at the expense of poor people already living hand to mouth and feeling the economic squeeze from Covid-19 tightening further.
A nightclub at the epicentre of this third round of transmission is also reported to count senior politicians and state officials among its exclusive clients. It has reportedly reserved a special lounge area for its so-called 'Thai Kufah' members.
Thai Kufah, the name of the principle building in the Government House complex, is understood to refer to the club patrons who are government politicians or high-ranking officials.
Tony fires shot at jab efforts
Fugitive former prime minister Thaksin "Tony Woodsome" Shinawatra reappeared in a chatroom on Clubhouse, the audio-based social networking app, this week, offering to give the country a fighting chance of staying ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic curve.
In the invite-only chat session, which let some 5,000 people listen in on a live conversation, Thaksin criticized the government's vaccine procurement and rollout programme.
In his view, the country's vaccine scheme was sluggish because the government relied exclusively on its own health infrastructure for procurement and distribution.
He suggested that the government seek help from high-profile business tycoons who had the capability and extensive connections to secure more Covid-19 vaccines with manufacturers in countries like China and Russia.
Thaksin: Offered some help
The former premier even made an offer: "or I could talk with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, if you want".
However, the offer was passed up by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. When he was asked by reporters about Thaksin's offer the next day, he said: "I won't answer. Don't relay a question from someone who is not in the country."
Thaksin, who currently lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also compared Thailand's vaccine programme with that of the UAE where Covid-19 vaccines from various suppliers including the China-developed Sinopharm and Pfizer-BioNTech were available.
His remarks struck a chord with government critics and many Covid-19-wary Thais who were pinning their hopes on the vaccine to revive the economy and curb the surge of new infections thar are turning their hopes into frustration.
However, Thaksin's critics took his words with a grain of salt, arguing that the offer was not as innocent as it looked and the move was political, according to political observers.
The vaccine programme has become a major political issue following a Jan 18 live-streaming session by Progressive Movement group core leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
With the third wave coming fast and hard and the government under heavy criticism, Thaksin could not afford to let the chance pass by and give the Pheu Thai Party some media attention.
Pheu Thai, despite being the main opposition party, is being overshadowed by the Move Forward Party (MFP) in terms of political agenda and media spotlight.
The party underwent drastic structural changes in October last year, reportedly upsetting several key party figures who eventually quit. However, Pheu Thai is still trying to get back in the game with a little push from Thaksin, the party's alleged de-facto leader.
Taking its cue from Thaksin, Pheu Thai submitted an open letter to Gen Prayut the next day, demanding he spell out his plan to get the country out of the Covid-19 doldrums.
Thaksin also dropped a little surprise during the Clubhouse session, which was hosted by the CARE group of politicians, including Dr Surapong Suebwonglee, who is also an adviser to Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
A DnaNudge product was mentioned as an alternative Covid-19 testing option for Thai people. The product was showcased at the CES 2020 tech expo where Thaksin and his sister and another fugitive former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, attended early last year and revealed themselves to be startup backers. Yingluck also posted photos at the electronics show on social media.
At the tech expo, DnaNudge was advertised as a DNA nutrition kit that provided eating tips via a wearable device and a smartphone app. According to Thaksin, the product could now be used for Covid-19 testing.
According to Dr Surapong, a team of product developers was due to visit Thailand tomorrow [April 25] to submit the product to the Department of Medical Sciences for testing.
"If the product is as accurate as a PCR test, the next step is to promote the use of DnaNudge in Covid-19 testing among Thai people," said Dr Surapong.