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Does Thailand’s ‘New Normal’ Mean ‘Mindless Panic’?

It would be easy to laugh off the overreaction to Rayong's health scare as silly “Thainess”. But it’s more sinister than that.

It seems there’s now a clear definition of what “new normal” means in Thailand: Senseless panic.

While everyone should be angry and frustrated over the government’s botched handling of a short-term visit by a group of Egyptian airmen and the self-quarantining by Sudanese diplomats, the over-the-top overreaction by both officials and the public would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous.

Thailand on Tuesday suspended all short-term foreign visits, temporarily banned the Egyptian Air Force and moved to revoke privileges allowing diplomats to self-isolate following the government lapses that potentially exposed hundreds in Rayong and Bangkok to the coronavirus.

All those actions were more than justified. What has not been is the kneejerk reaction in Rayong.

In the past 48 hours, Rayong hotel reservations have been canceled by the hundreds, the blameless governor transferred, all of the province’s 127 public schools and daycare centers closed, and disinfectant trucks dispatched to spray down roads, sidewalks, telephone poles and trees that may, somehow, have been touched by one Egyptian airman who may have tested positive for the coronavirus.

We say “may have” because even that is now in doubt. The Egyptian embassy issued a statement on its Facebook page Tuesday night insisting all the 31 air force personnel who stayed at the (now closed) D’Varee Diva Central Hotel in Rayong has passed a coronavirus test before they left for Thailand on July 9.

All those actions were more than justified. What has not been is the kneejerk reaction in Rayong.

Sure, that could just be ass-covering by Egypt, but the tests themselves already were suspect. The Egyptians didn’t want to endure another painful test on July 10, but were forced to by their embassy and police. But public-health workers bungled the test. Samples were likely contaminated, as all the results were judged “problematic” and thrown out.

New tests were done on July 11, but given the previous day’s screwup, the fact one test came back positive and 30 others didn’t makes a false-positive possible, if not probable.

Besides, hotel staffers said the infected Egyptian kept to himself, spoke to no one other than his traveling companions and wore a mask all the time.

Of course, we’ll never know because the Public Health Ministry allowed the Egyptians to leave before the results came back. The one “infected” airman would have been tested again to confirm otherwise.

If it was a false-positive, then the group’s visit to the Laemthong and Central Plaza stores at the Passione Shopping Destination would have been annoying, but not a cause for mass panic.

Sending hundreds of panicked, weary Thais back into lockdown because they were at a mall is as stupid as disinfecting a tree that had a greater chance of being peed on than touched by a wayward Egyptian.

Now, the government finally can justify the use of its flawed Thai Chana contact-tracing app by telling 394 people who were at the large galleria between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. that fateful day to get tested (probably more than once) and isolate, giving up work while also trying to care for kids who have now been thrown out of school for two weeks.

In reality, the Egyptians potentially exposed only nine people: seven at the hotel and two at U-Tapao-Rayong-Pattaya Airport. Sure, isolate them. But sending hundreds of panicked, weary Thais back into lockdown because they were at a mall is as stupid as disinfecting a tree that had a greater chance of being peed on than touched by a wayward Egyptian.

It would be easy to laugh all of this off as just silly “Thainess”. But it’s more sinister than that. This kind of senseless terror is the type of thing that keeps borders closed in perpetuity. It’s justification for indefinite extension of the emergency decree. And it’s fuel for the fire of xenophobic discrimination spreading in Thailand.

Even if some of the nine seriously exposed to the Egyptians become ill, it’s not an epidemic. It’s a few people who had limited contact with others and all of those contacts likely have been chased down by now. It’s contained.

Thailand needs to wake up. Cases are going to reoccur. And the country has the infrastructure to handle them without it spreading like a mushroom cloud. But Thailand losing its collective mind over the thought of even one person developing Covid-19 will only serve to drive the entire economy into the ground in pursuit of an impossible goal.