After weeks of lockdown, a young, single guy heads out for a night on the town after bars finally were allowed to reopen. His choice is not a pub or disco, but a club in a red-light district. After all, he’s been cooped up alone for weeks.
He grabs a taxi and heads to the nightlife strip, where, over the next six hours, he hops between three bars, drinking, dancing and getting friendly with the service staff and locals. As the bars close, he hails another cab to go home.
Two days later, the man wakes up with a scratchy throat and fever. A test later that day confirms he has the coronavirus. But he’s not the only one.
The hospital asks the 25-year-old where he was two nights ago. A school teacher, he lies, not wanting the private school where he works to learn he was at a bar of disrepute. It’s not until days later the truth comes out.
By that time, more than 100 others at or around the nightlife district are found to have Covid-19, including the 69-year-old taxi driver who drove the teacher to the bars. Both driver and passenger were wearing masks, but it didn’t matter. The cabbie then passed Covid-19 on to his 67-year-old wife.
The story above is not a hypothetical. It is what actually happened in Seoul this month, two days after the government reopened bars and nightclubs. As the new coronavirus cluster blossomed, Seoul shut all its bars again.
That is the challenge that Thailand faces. While the consensus is that Khao San Road, RCA, Thonglor and the tourist red-light districts on Sukhumvit will reopen again, no one knows if it will be June, July or later.
No matter when they do, however, operators will have to enact major changes and customers make some serious concessions to their privacy.
If anyone needed a reminder of just how contagious the coronavirus is, South Korea provided it. One infected, but asymptomatic, private school teacher ended up infecting more than 100 people, both through ignorance and deceit driven by not wanting his employer known he was in a gay bar. Substitute “gay” for “go-go” bar and you have Thailand’s problem in a nutshell.
When shopping malls reopened this week, they, supermarkets and even 7-Elevens, began requiring customers to “check in” by either writing their names and phone numbers in a visitor’s log or scanning a QR code that would send their phone number and other unknown personal data to a centralized, government-controlled database. The so-called Thai Chana (“Thais Win”) web app is the Thai government’s amateur, ham-fisted attempt at contact tracing.
Done hastily and on the cheap, Thai Chana lacks the sophistication of smartphone-based contact-tracing apps that proved so successful in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. It also lacks the privacy safeguards of the software framework created for Android and iOS by Google and Apple. Instead, it uses the centralized-data warehousing model initially adopted, and then dropped by Germany, in favor of the Google-Apple system.
The Google-Apple system relies on Bluetooth and GPS data stored only on a user’s telephone to alert them if someone else with an Android or iOS phone has been confirmed to have contracted Covid-19. Thai Chana, by comparison, sends all personal data to the government, which will send out alerts to everyone who checked into a location where someone infected with the coronavirus also checked in. The alert allows the user to obtain a free Covid-19 test. And, in very Thai fashion, it also lets people leave reviews for places that do not – and do – enforce strict hygiene standards. (It didn’t take long for business owners to start demanding positive reviews.)
There’s no scenario in which the Thai government allows nightclubs, live music houses, boxing stadiums or movie theaters reopen without contact tracing. None. Zero.
Thais and expats naturally are skeptical about Thai Chana. While the government has vowed that no one other than the Public Health Ministry would have access to the data, and it only would be used for publicly beneficial uses, the promises of former generals who overthrew Thailand’s last democratically elected government and spent the past six years rigging the election and violating human rights to suppress opposition hold little weight.
Nonetheless, that’s what Thailand has. And even dodgy contact-tracing systems are better than no contact tracing systems. That’s because contact tracing is essential if Thailand ever hopes to reopen its entire economy, let alone bars and clubs.
While Thailand crushed community spread of the coronavirus, no one really believes it has been eradicated as it has in New Zealand or Australia. There simply hasn’t been enough community testing to assure that. But the point of “flattening the curve” with a lockdown was to prevent Covid-19 from collapsing the medical system, not wipe out the virus itself.
Now that Thailand has done that, the next step is to put in place a system that can manage Covid-19 just like other endemic disease like dengue fever or influenza. Covid-19 is not going away. But society can’t stay on lockdown forever, either. The keys are the Three Ts: Tracking, Tracing and Testing.
Until a vaccine is available – and there’s no guarantee one ever will be given the difficulty of vaccinating against coronaviruses – Thailand must be able to track down all Covid-19 cases, trace who the infected came in contact with and then test and isolate all of them. Doing that prevents outbreaks from becoming epidemics.
Which brings us back to the bars. There’s no scenario in which the Thai government allows nightclubs, live music houses, boxing stadiums or movie theaters reopen without contact tracing. None. Zero. While unhappy with the idea, venue operators are slowly beginning to realize that.
So what does the “new normal” look like for a place like Nana Plaza? It probably will go something like this.
The one public entrance to Nana Plaza will be manned with additional security and barricades. All tourists, expats and bar workers will have to check-in.
Visitors will be strongly encouraged to scan the Thai Chana QR code. Those objecting will have to show their passports and have them photographed and their telephone number or email address recorded. Those bucking the system will be denied entry.
Once checked in, visitors will have their temperatures checked, be given hand sanitizer and provided a face mask if they aren’t wearing one already.
Sunday at the malls, visitors has to pass through screenings at the mall entrances and at individual stores. One hopes that kind of overkill won’t be employed by each bar in a complex like Nana, but it very well be could the case in places like RCA or Khao San where there are no central access points.
Once entering the bars, hand sanitizer will be required at each table. After that, the crystal ball gets hazy. Will there be limits on how many patrons are allowed inside at one time? Will social distancing between tables and bench seating be enforced?
People can postulate the worst-possible scenario, but it may be that QR code check-ins could be enough to placate the government, provided enough facility cleaning is done and hand sanitizer provided.
But will customers accept it? A recent online poll found 60 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t visit a nightclub if they had to register.
Bar operators, however, face more hurdles than just wary customers. How much of the staff will come back and expose themselves, so to speak, to a parade of potentially infected customers all night?
Bar bosses also will have to shoulder more expenses for those who do return. Regular, mandatory coronavirus testing likely will be required weekly or more often. Strict health screenings of every worker also will be required.
Anyone expecting Thailand to do the typical Thailand thing and simply forget about coronavirus health measures after a while, as it did the smoking ban or the TM30 bruhaha is kidding themselves. This is the greatest health crisis in a century and the bar scene as we knew it is over, at least until someone finds a cure for Covid-19.