By most measures, Thailand has been extremely successful in handling the coronavirus pandemic’s health impacts. The government’s handling of the economic impact is another matter, however.
From its belated decision to close the country to China, to the baffling bans on alcohol sales, to the glacial pace of reopening, examples of mismanagement by the former army generals – who have no backgrounds in health care or economics – have become increasingly apparent, befuddling and damaging.
Tens of millions of Thais (and expats) have been put out of work by Thailand’s three-month-plus lockdown and the disemboweling of the tourism industry through the (albeit necessary) closure of the country’s borders. But, unlike in the west, the government failed its its people by failing to support industry and individuals beyond tax breaks and paltry cash handouts.
So when the government’s Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration on Wednesday night rejected the outline so-called “travel bubble” agreements Thailand would make with other countries, it was yet another twist of the knife in its people’s collective gut.
By doing so, the CCSA – the task force headed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, military bosses and a smattering of health professionals – overruled the Cabinet, which had already approved the outline in hopes of reopening welcoming foreign business travelers and teachers in July.
But the overly cautious generals killed the plan because it did not include mandatory 14-day quarantines for all arriving passengers.
Earth to Prayut: The entire point of a travel bubble is that it eliminates quarantines. The agreements – already being enacted in Oceania, Europe and North Asia – basically say “both of our countries have done a great job in suppressing the coronavirus and we trust each other enough to exchange tourists without having to resort to quarantines.”
Trust has never been the former coup leader’s strong suit.
Prayut’s refusal to let go of quarantines is yet another example of him refusing to accept reality. In Prayut’s reality-distortion field, the country cannot accept even a single case of Covid-19, no matter the economic or mental costs for society.
The fact is, the coronavirus is not going away. As New Zealand showed this week, it’s impossible to keep outside a country’s borders and, as Beijing is proving now, it cannot be suppressed even within borders.
Opposing CCSA board members, Cabinet officials and tourism executives all pointed this out. They all told Prayut that tourists won’t come to Thailand if they’re forced into two weeks of isolation at their expense, especially since most travelers don’t have weeks to spend abroad.
That’s the whole reason travel bubbles were created.
But Prayut and National Security Council military bosses aren’t having it. They told agreement drafters to find another way to dirty foreigners away from virus-pristine Thais. Only accept long-stay tourists or put them on remote island or in all-inclusive resorts where they can stay two weeks in a de-facto quarantine, the generals suggested.
Of course, business travelers are not long-stay tourists and those who are don’t spend hundreds of thousands of baht to be confined to their hotels.
Earth to Prayut: The entire point of a travel bubble is that it eliminates quarantines.
At some point, hopefully soon, the light bulb is going to go on for Prayut and he will realize that no matter what he wants to happen, there are going to be new coronavirus cases, clusters and community spread. But if the country is as prepared and responsive to outbreaks as he claims, Thailand can handle them.
The point of lockdowns worldwide was not to vanquish the coronavirus. That’s impossible without a vaccine. The point was to “flatten the curve” or reduce the spread of Covid-19 so that healthcare systems weren’t overrun and collapse. Thailand and its million-strong army of village health volunteers did that. Now begins the real work of testing, tracking and tracing infections and isolating patients before clusters become epidemics.
The CCSA has to realize that Covid-19 is now just another endemic disease, like dengue fever or HIV, that must and can be controlled without gutting the entire economy.
Prayut wants the new “pseudo-quarantine” ideas by June 26 when he is to meet in a video meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and leaders from Japan and other East Asian countries. Let’s hope they can talk some sense into the old uncle.