As Thailand nears 10 weeks without a locally transmitted case of Covid-19, Thais and expats alike increasingly are forsaking masks and flouting social distancing, ignorantly acting as if the coronavirus pandemic ravaging nearly every other country in the world won’t return to Thailand.
As Vietnam proved this week, they are wrong. Possibly dead wrong.
The same pattern that has unfolded throughout the U.S., across Europe and in Asia is starting to play out in Thailand. People are packing shoulder-to-shoulder at concerts, crowding into bars and protesting online and off against continued mask requirements. The result has been fresh infections in Tokyo and Seoul traced back to nightlife districts, spikes in Hong Kong tied to restaurants, and, in Vietnam, a quickly-spreading outbreak spread by domestic tourists imported into the country by illegal aliens.
Thailand this week ranked first in a dodgy Malaysian survey of countries that have best recovered from the pandemic, but all signs point to a second wave of infections nearing Thailand’s shores. Use os masks, social-distancing and good hyenine, even amid a 10-week absence of reported coronavirus cases, is not a farce. It’s what’s keeping the country safe.
Vietnam had gone 99 days without a local case of Covid-19 and, to date, has had no official deaths blamed on the coronavirus. But that streak came to a swift and furious end July 23 when a 57-year-old man who had been in the coastal city of Danang for about a month, hadn’t travelled to other provinces, had no contact with strangers and mostly stayed only around family and neighbors was hospitalized for fever and cough and, three days later, diagnosed with Covid-19.
The next day, a 61-year-old man also tested positive despite not leaving Danang or knowing the first patient.
By Tuesday, two cases had become nine. By Thursday nine had become 47 with cases spanning a half-dozen cities and provinces. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc warned Wednesday that “every province and city was at high risk of coronavirus infections”.
That is how fast the virus spreads and how fast it will almost certainly spread again in Thailand, likely sooner than later.
Vietnam’s communist government responded just as swiftly and fiercely, locking down Danang, closing beaches, cutting off transportation to the city, evacuating tourists and launching rapid tests for tens of thousands of people from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Provinces put out quarantine orders for anyone traveling from Danang. Mask use is mandatory again.
But even if Vietnam brings the outbreak under control quickly, one thing became abundantly clear: The virus was lurking inside Vietnam for weeks. An American expat in Danang was treated for coronavirus symptoms three times since mid-June before finally testing positive at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City this week.
Thailand’s parallels to Vietnam are too obvious to ignore. The country’s borders remain closed to foreign tourists, but it had completely reopened internally with the government encouraging domestic tourists. Domestic airline passengers in July actually increased 27 percent over pre-Covid levels a year ago. Bars and restaurants were humming and masks increasingly were being pulled down or left at home.
“Everyone, including health workers, had let their guard down,” Truong Huu Khanh, head of the infectious-diseases department at Nhi Dong I Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City told Reuters Thursday. “People had stopped wearing masks in public and some health workers didn’t pay enough attention to ‘high risk’ cases”.
“After 100 days with no outbreaks, people weren’t taking precautions anymore,” agreed Nguyen Huy Nga, dean of public health and nursing at Quang Trung University in Binh Dinh Province, in an interview with the New York Times. “They weren’t wearing masks or cleaning their hands with soap. People were going to crowded places.”
Mask use in Thailand has steadily declined since the height of the country’s outbreak. In May, a survey by public-policy group YouGov and the Institute of Global Health Innovation at the Imperial College of London found 95 percent of Thais “always” or “frequently” wore masks when leaving the house. By June, the Public Health Ministry said that number was down to 85.3 percent and, by mid-July, it fell to just more than 80 percent.
But the parallels don’t end there. Not only have both countries seen a massive uptick in domestic travel – which leads to faster, uncontrollable spread of the virus – both nations also are wrangling with illegal migrant workers sneaking over the border.
Vietnamese officials haven’t pinpointed the origin of the new outbreak, but are certain about one thing: It came from outside the country. The health ministry confirmed that the DNA strain of the virus found in new patients is different than the one that afflicted people in March and April.
“This is imported,” Nga told the Times, adding that it likely entered Vietnam in June. “A virus cannot survive for three months in a community without causing illness.”
State police last weekend fanned out across Danang looking for illegal aliens, arresting nine Chinese who had sneaked across the border, joining dozens more Chinese caught in immigration dragnets across the country. All were put in quarantine camps or hospitalized.
Thailand’s former generals, likewise, has been saber rattling about the virus threat of illegal migrants, ordering the military and Immigration Bureau to down on efforts to curb illegal border crossings.
On July 13, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon ordered the Internal Security Operations Command, police and labor officials to suppress illegal migration and check workplaces and fishing piers for illegal aliens.
Like Vietnam, which has arrested 4,000 illegals this year, Thai border agents captured hundreds of illegal migrants every month since April with almost 500 coming from Cambodia, 300 from Myanmar and 80 from Laos.
On July 23, immigration Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong Chingduang said surveillance has been stepped up in every border province, especially the one with Cambodia.
Ten Burmese migrants were captured in Chumphon Province on July 16 and traffickers were caught five days later in Mae Sot with a van full of more Burmese being smuggled to workplaces.
The government’s inability to control the influx of Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians is one reason the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration agreed last week to crack open the border again to allow migrant workers to re-enter the country.
The CCSA portrayed the “Phase 6” relaxation as a move to aid Thai construction and food industries facing labor shortages, but it actually gives Thailand a better chance of catching imported Covid-19 cases. Unlike smuggled migrants, who may carry bring the coronavirus with them in traffickers’ vans, those entering legally must enter 14-day quarantines.
The Labor Ministry’s Department of Employment said 69,235 migrants with work permits and 42,168 first-time workers have registered to enter the country.
Employers complain, however, that the government is jeopardizing success of the Phase 6 migration plan by putting all the costs of testing and quarantine on employers, giving them less incentive to import workers legally.
The CCSA estimated that “alternative quarantine” for migrant workers would cost 13,200-19,300 baht per worker. The Group of Entrepreneurs with Foreign Workers said companies also are being forced to pick up the tab for health checks Covid-19 and five other infectious diseases.
Taken all together – waning public social distancing, a fully opened economy, increased domestic tourism and continued illegal immigration – and it’s clear that it’s not a matter of if Thailand is hit by a second coronavirus wave, but when.
“What is happening now in Vietnam was almost inevitable,” Guy Thwaites, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, told Reuters. “It is almost impossible to isolate an entire country from a global pandemic.”