Oh, how the tables have turned… This time last year, Thailand was in strict lockdown to combat a pandemic that was starting its march around the globe, while countries such as the US and UK dithered over how to handle the crisis.
The upshot was both western countries ended up with 2 of the world’s highest infection rates and preventable deaths. As we watched with horror, probably believing that the reverse situation would have been the case, Thailand’s lockdown had a significant impact on the economy, particularly in the tourism sector. Still, the government’s tough action then meant the country was able to curb the spread and get back to semi-normal for most of the rest of 2020.
But Covid-19 was simply biding its time, as viruses do, opportunistically awaiting a slip in the defences. All it took was an overly-confident (some might say arrogant) government and a complacent Thai public.
The third wave that now has the country in its grip – with the original hotzone this time in Bangkok and surrounding provinces – was sparked by nightlife in the capital and so-called “hi-so” members of Thai society, flaunting the well published precautions as they danced the night away in close quarters. Among them, allegedly, some notable political figures.
At the time of writing, Thailand has reported 1,911 new infections and 18 deaths in the last 24 hours. Last month, the country reported 36,650 new cases – more than it had recorded since the start of the pandemic, including last December’s outbreak in the fishing industry around Samut Sakhon’s coastline.
A number of field hospitals have been opened in Bangkok and other parts of the country, as fears of bed shortages grow. There have been reports that some hospitals – predominantly in Bangkok – have been refusing to carry out Covid-19 testing because they don’t have enough beds to comply with the government’s mandatory hospitalisation policy for all who test positive.
Meanwhile, the national vaccine rollout has been slammed for its snail-like pace and the low number of doses available. For reasons known only to them, the government has decided to run with just 2 vaccines – China’s Sinovac and AstraZeneca, the latter will be produced locally under a technology transfer deal. The company chosen to manufacture the vaccine is Siam Bioscience, which was set up by CPB Equity, an investment arm of the Crown Property Bureau. Although the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine has also gained the approval of the Food & Drug Administration, there appears to be no rush to order it.
In the meantime, countries such as the UK and the US, derided initially for their slow response to Covid-19, are racing ahead with vaccinating their populations in the hope of achieving herd immunity and rebooting their economies. With Thailand’s limited vaccine supply currently off-limits to non-Thais, some expats are considering long and expensive trips for the sole purpose of inoculation.
In Thailand, people are angry and PM Prayut Chan-o-cha and his side-kick, the Public Health Minister and deputy PM Anutin Charnvirakul, have been blasted for their handling of the crisis. In particular, the decision to allow inter-provincial travel to go ahead over the recent extended Songkran holiday has come back to haunt them, despite the availability of figures before the break of rising infections.
A petition calling for Anutin’s resignation has received over 228,400 signatures at the time of writing, although many see him as lacking any real power under the PM’s rule, who has now taken sole charge of handling the pandemic. There may be fall out over this throwing of his deputy PM under the political bus.
The Australian Financial Review quotes Ken Lohatepanont, a political analyst based in Bangkok, who sums up how people are feeling…
“Everyone is angry right now – business leaders, SMEs, ordinary people, I’ve heard even the government’s coalition partners are discontent. The government’s worst mistake was letting the Songkran break happen. We already knew then the outbreak would be serious, and inexplicably Prayut let everyone travel around the country, saying ‘whatever happens, happens’.”
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