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Why are Thailand’s Covid-19 numbers so low?

Jack Burton




Why has Thailand, with a population greater than that of the UK, been largely spared the catastrophic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the nation and much of the world? Social distancing is embedded in Thai culture – Thais rarely touch when greeting, preferring the prayer-like “wai” gesture to a handshake or embrace. Could this custom be at least partly responsible for the country’s low numbers?

There have been no overwhelmed hospitals in the country’s public hospital system. No dead bodies in the streets. No social media postings from frantic doctors or nurses. The country simply acted swiftly, and with a determined force.

Thailand was quick to adopt the use of facemasks, close schools and enforce social distancing on public transport, even before declaring a national state of emergency and curfew, sealing its borders and forbidding interprovincial travel. Is that what prevented the runaway transmission of the virus here?

Is there a genetic component that makes the immune systems of Thais (and others in the Mekong River region) more resistant to the virus? Or is it some combination of all these factors that have insulated this country of 69 million?

One thing’s for sure, despite an influx of foreign visitors early in the year from countries badly hit by the virus, especially China, Thailand has recorded just 3,236 cases since January, 58 deaths and achieved a 95.5% recovery rate. As of today, there have been no cases of local transmission for about 7 weeks (although there’s been a steady flow of daily single-figure infections as Thais repatriate from overseas).

Thailand’s low infection rate appears to be shared by other countries in the Mekong River basin. Vietnam has not recorded a single death and has logged about three months without a case of community transmission. Myanmar has confirmed 336 cases, Cambodia 166 and Laos just 19, though authorities believe the numbers are likely higher due to low testing rates in such developing nations. Yunnan, the southwestern Chinese province through which the Mekong flows, before winding its way to south east Asia, had fewer than 190 cases, with none being “active” now.

According to Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin, spokesman for the the country’s Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, says he doesn’t believe it’s got anything to do with immunity or genetics alone.

“It has to do with culture. Thai people do not have body contact when we greet each other. This is how the countries in the Mekong region greet each other as well. “

Thailand appears to have brought the virus well under control, but the outlook didn’t always look so positive. In January, Thailand confirmed the world’s first case of the virus outside China, in a tourist from Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the outbreak is thought to have begun. A wave of infections was set off by people arriving from Japan, Europe and the US and a Bangkok boxing match turned into into a massive virus-spreading event.

But after the lockdown was enforced in March, which shuttered businesses and schools, domestic transmissions subsided quickly. In the island of Phuket most of the island’s 17 ‘tambons’ (suburbs) were all locked down with checkpoints set up to stop people moving out of their area, except for emergencies. There were no protests, no arguments, everyone realised what needed to be done although the economic impact was considerable.

A public health expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, researching an outbreak of the virus in the southern border province of Pattani, noted that more than 90% of those who tested positive there were asymptomatic, a much higher proportion than normal. He claimed Thais and other people from this part of Southeast Asia are more susceptible to serious cases of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus, than those from other continents.

“What we are studying now is the immune system. If our immune systems against dengue are so bad, why can’t our immune system against Covid be better? “

Though Thailand’s hospitals have not been overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, the country’s tourism-dependent economy has been battered, if not almost entirely shut down.

In April, Thailand banned virtually all incoming flights, and holidaymakers stopped coming to Bangkok, once known as the world’s most visited city. The Thai Tourism and Sports Ministry estimates that 60% of hospitality businesses could end up permanently closing by the end of this year.

The International Monetary Fund also predicts the Thai economy will shrink by at least 6.5% in 2020 with other estimates even higher. The World Bank says more than 8 million Thais may lose their jobs or income in 2020 as a result of the virus.

Why are Thailand's Covid-19 numbers so low? | News by Thaiger

PHOTO: New York Times

SOURCE: The New York Times


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  1. Avatar

    Jeremy Hook

    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    Very interesting article.
    It’s very impressive the way Thailand have felt with the corona virus.
    It will be very interesting to discover the reasons why THAILAND has been so fortunate not to have suffered as badly as elsewhere.
    I really enjoy reading your articles

  2. Avatar

    John Topsfield

    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    John Topsfield My beliefs are in line with the comments of this news article. I have high respect for the Thai culture, the people, and the manner they have disciplined themselves to follow the precautions outlined to them by the authorities. Figures shown must surely go noticed to support these preventive actions. To add to this from the arguments raised by other countries as to whether wearing facemasks are effective? Well, all I can say is follow the Thai example. Here one cannot enter any establishments without this face coverage or registering one’s presence by following a QR code or signing in. To summaries, I can say without a doubt I feel safe residing here and it would be more comforting if the rest of the world could ‘toe the line’ and follow the Thai example. ‘Walk don’t Run’ and we can all contribute to the annihilation of this dreadful disease.

  3. Avatar

    Pierre Resistance

    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    But missing in this is the numbers of people who has actually been tested in Thailand.

    Many countries have different strategies for testing and Thailand is one of the countries who only testing people who has symptoms while other countries have open public tests and therefore will have higher positive rate since all with asymptomatic also is registered.

    The 2nd of July Thailand tested 8.65 per every 1000 persons while eg. Russia tested 140 per every 1000 persons so off course Russia will find more people infected with Covid-19.

    Also Thailand have to test for Covid-19 in all death cases. Many countries count those infected with Covid-19 in the statics of death with Covid-19 even though their death probably was related to other factors.

  4. Avatar


    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 6:11 pm

    Does the government publish the number of Thai’s tested for Covid-19? It is very difficult to have cases when there is no testing. Just a thought.

  5. Avatar


    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 8:13 pm

    The culture?!? That’s supposed to be why CV was a complete nothing-burger in Thailand???

    Food is shared, water is shared from common coolers, people touch doors, handles, and literally hundreds of common things daily. Just because they don’t give hand-shaked or hugs whenever they meet others is a ridiculously stupid idea.

    There is nothing special about the culture, nor any special natural immunity, any social immunity or habits, or unique genetics, that ‘protected’ Thai people from CV.

    The govt emergency actions were irrelevant. To think that a microbe sized ‘virus’ could be stopped entering or leaving the body with poorly fitting simple cloth masks is silly. Social distancing, lock downs, and curfews? There are countries (and large states in the US) that did no such things and had no different results from countries that did. Any govt that would ‘take credit’ for those measures would be outright lying.

    How about asking the correct question: WHY IS THE CV INFECTION AND FATALITY RATE “SO HIGH” in other countries?

    Perhaps Thailand didn’t rig the numbers and play political games with the numbers like was and is going on (at a stratosphericly high level) in the USA and other countries. But they did play the lock-down game and severely damaged the economy and the population.

    Looking for special genes or habits, etc, is a failure to understand the question. Try again.

    • Avatar

      Michael Lewis

      Monday, July 20, 2020 at 6:10 pm

      Well said Glen. The Thai culture idea certainly paints the journalist pink in the eyes of the Thai authotities, because they love to hear his praise. Has Thailand stopped using money for purchases, no of course not, isn’t that the equivalent of shaking hands, yes its even worse the money has passed through hundreds of hands. When the virus spread rapidly after that Thai boxing event did the attendees suddenly abandon Thai culture and all start shaking hands. When the virus broke out in Thailand there still thousands of Chinese tourist here and still arriving, many of the from the virus provincial hotbed in China. Why not analyse that together with known Thai corruption and possible faking of the figures. N’est pas? Try again Jack.

    • Avatar


      Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 1:12 am

      It is not only Thailand. Look at the countries around it, look at Sri Lanka. They are all low in COVID.
      What is the common to all of them?
      They have MALARIA.
      and what do people do there?

  6. Avatar


    Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 12:06 am

    The fact that mekong population has been exposed to dengue and malaria epidemy for centuries may have played a role by selecting individuals who have a specific immune system reaction. The reaction may be more adequate not over reacting to covid.
    Thai people have a better diet than most of the world and Thailand has banned GMO that may be a factor.

  7. Avatar

    Edy F.

    Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 1:57 am

    Maybe because no 5G yet in Thailand.. Maybe because less pollution than other countries.. Maybe because they don’t lie about the number of deaths, unlike other countries where there is only one official disease, this to obey to the WHO.
    Maybe because not many people are vaccinated..
    But not because of the reasons you give here.
    Because covid19 doesn’t exist, my friends..

  8. Avatar


    Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 2:54 am

    Sorry, trying to explain the low numbers from these countries with “because they rarely touch when greeting” is kind of ridiculous.

    Dengue and malaria are not solely existing in Mekong countries! There’s dengue and malaria all around the world, just around the corner in whole Indonesia (just look at their COVID-19 numbers, now close to China), all over most of Africa, in South-America, especially Brazil, in the whole Amazon region and many more corners on this planet.

    And what about the very poor hygiene in SEA-countries in general? This is also embedded in these cultures! Ever been to Cambodia or Myanmar? Hygiene is catastrophic there, as elsewhere in SEA and yes, in Thailand as well.

    No; The simple answer to the question is the lack of testing and, particularly with authoritarian regimes like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar the clear aim to simply NOT publish the real numbers.

  9. Avatar


    Monday, July 20, 2020 at 1:37 am

    This could turn out to be a way of saving a lot of time.

    I will not check the grass in my garden, that way I won’t have to cut it ever as it will not grow if I don’t measure it.

    When my partner complains about long grass I will say it has all been made up by the media, there is no grass, I know there is no grass as I have not checked it.

    • Avatar

      Michael Lewis

      Monday, July 20, 2020 at 6:17 pm

      Well said James. Who is Thailand trying to fool. Maybe Tourists and potential investors. Time will tell who actually believe the Thai data and/or its interpretation.

  10. Avatar

    Clive Goodwin

    Monday, July 20, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    I caught COVID-19 between the 15th of December and sixth of January in either Phuket, Koh Samui, or on the flight home to the UK. I have thought long and hard about why These Asian countries have not suffered particularly badly, and I conclude that it is because bacteria is so prevalent in those countries, with its humid climate, so the indigenous population have an immune system that is used to dealing with this threat

    • Avatar

      Don R

      Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 2:19 pm

      I agree. Immune systems play a major role.

      In the West everything is heavily sanitized, populations are generally older, less healthy, and (as is the case in the US) get stashed away in nursing homes.

  11. Avatar


    Tuesday, July 21, 2020 at 9:44 am

    There is a MAJOR flaw in this text! “One thing’s for sure, despite an influx of foreign visitors early in the year from countries badly hit by the virus, especially China.”

    There WERE NO “foreign cases” to speak of! Those who introduced COVID to the country were Thai-Chinese who were returning from mid-FEB Chinese New Year visits to the homeland. Then there was a ‘second wave’ as Thai-muslims returned from various events in Malaysia.

  12. Avatar

    Don R

    Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Swedes are the only ones who have had verified, sustained success.

    Asian bubble strategy can’t endure forever. Already it’s cost more lives than the virus, and is sure to shorten the lives of many people, mostly the young and poor.

    There’s a good chance, however, that the virus will continue to weaken, and when it does finally reach Thailand the death toll will be much lower–if only because other countries absorbed the brunt of the impact. Then, of course, the Thai govt will thump their chest and say, “You see, authoritarianism works!”

    A sad day for Western values.

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Jack Burton is an American writer, broadcaster, linguist and journalist who has lived in Asia since 1987. A native of the state of Georgia, he attended the The University of Georgia's Henry Grady School of Journalism, which hands out journalism's prestigious Peabody Awards. His works have appeared in The China Post, The South China Morning Post, The International Herald Tribune and many magazines throughout Asia and the world. He is fluent in Mandarin and has appeared on television and radio for decades in Taiwan, Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

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