It began innocently enough, with a single Thai woman contracting Covid-19. Two days later, Thailand is wondering whether the long-expected coronavirus “second wave” has arrived, with 576 cases reported in one day.
The Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration today officially confirmed the number of positive tests emerging from the explosive outbreak at the Mahachi central fresh market in Samut Sakhon: 548. Already shown to have swept through immediate family members of the infected, many fear the number of infected will explode into the thousands in coming days.
The 67-year-old fish sellers at Mahachai who first tested positive Thursday is the the point of origin for contact tracers, but not the source of the disease, public-health officials said. It’s believed she contracted the virus from a Burmese migrant worker who, without evidence, they said was likely an illegal alien who snaked into Thailand to work at the market.
On Friday, tests showed the virus had spread from the owner of the prawn farm to her 95-year-old mother, her sister, sister-in-law, a 40-year-old Burmese employee and his wife, a fellow 42-year-old shrimp seller, two customers and one of those customer’s office mates.
The Public Health Ministry immediately launched mass testing of market vendors and workers, focusing primarily on migrants. Of the 1,192 people tested, 516 were found Saturday to be infected. The shrimp market was closed and the Burmese workers confined to their crowded dormitories, kept inside by razor-wire topped fences. Thais were allowed to leave or sent to hospitals.
On Friday, CCSA officials had said a lockdown in Samut Sakhon wouldn’t be necessary. By 9 p.m. Saturday, that all changed, with the government placing the entire province under virtual lockdown with the governor admitting the number of positive tests “far exceeded out expectations”.
Until Jan. 3, all Samut Sakhon schools, shopping malls, beauty parlors, gaming centers and nurseries are closed. Restaurants are restricted to takeout orders only and fresh markets can open for only six hours a day. A voluntary curfew was imposed from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
More egregiously, travel outside the province by all migrant laborers are forbidden. Thais must obtain approval to leave and enter Samut Sakhon.
But the coronavirus doesn’t respect razor wire or provincial borders, a fact that quicky became evident by Sunday afternoon.
Cases connected to Mahachai market were reported Saturday in Ayutthaya and Bangkok, both customers there with the Bangkok shopper buying stock for her own stall at a Bang Sue market where she could have spread the disease to visitors there.
At midday Sunday, two Laotian and a seafood vendor who also shopped at Mahachai were confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Then the Nakhon Pathom Health Department announced that two local cases linked to Samut Sakhon have been found there.
Since October, Thai health officials have warned that a second wave in Thailand was not a matter of if, but when. As the virus exploded across Myanmar this fall, nervous officials watched as the wolf creeped closer and closer to the door.
The military battened down the borders, but the virus didn’t care. After cases along the Myanmar side of the border became common, they began to leak into Thailand, first with truck drivers bringing in freight and then – despite their scapegoating of their Burmese neighbors – by Thais themselves: ten suspected prostitutes who worked at a Tachileik hotel/brothel who smuggled themselves into the country, skipped quarantine and then ended up infecting nearly 100 people.
Both those northern outbreaks were contained – although a local case of someone who visited Chiang Mai during the border-crossers flareup was reported Sunday – but Samut Sakhon won’t be as easy to control.
Starting contact with three truck drivers or 10 hookers is easy enough to do. The total number of people tested in the case of the border-crossers never exceeded 2,000. Border-area officials tested 10,000 people related to the truck drivers.
Now authorities are starting with a base of 500-plus. If each person can infect four, or even two, the virus bomb that went off in Samut Sakhon quickly could spread through neighboring Bangkok and provinces in the Central and East.
The outbreak was on everyone’s lips in Bangkok Saturday night, wondering how long it would be until Samut Sakhon’s lockdown came to the capital. The Interior Ministry and police already had begun cracking down on nightlife venues flagrantly ignoring disease-control measures after the Chiang Rai border-crossing scandal. How will they react to hundreds of infected being found in the next province?
Bangsaen has already canceled its New Year’s Eve countdown event. Will Pattaya’s be next?
The days between now and New Year’s Eve will tell. Nearly everyone is hoping that Samut Sakhon is not the start of the long-predicted second wave but, instead, an intense, but isolated, outbreak in an easily controlled area: the migrant worker dormitories.
Singapore faced the same situation this summer when, after vanquishing the coronavirus early, it saw an explosion of thousands of cases, all tied to its overcrowded, underfunded migrant labor communities. Instead of taking all the cases – most asymptomatic – out of the isolation, they packed the infected in with the uninfected and hoped the blockade would hold.
It did, but new data shows that 47 percent of Singapore’s migrants – 152,000 – fell ill, some died and many more suffering lingering and long-term effects of the disease.
Thailand’s situation appears eerily familiar, but whether the Samut Sakhon outbreak can be similarly controlled remains an open question.