Thailand on Wednesday reached the psychologically significant milestone of 100 days without a locally transmitted case of Covid-19, but not even health officials were celebrating, as the battle against the coronavirus has inflicted drastically more damage on the country than the virus-fatality numbers indicate.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the 100-day mark is a “good accomplishment” but urged the government and people to work together to not only keep the country safe from the virus, but bring it out of the historic recession that the pandemic has caused.
“If we don’t help each other, none of us can move forward and the country can’t move forward, and the people will suffer more than they already have,” he said.
Like Taiwan (147 days), New Zealand (102 days) and Vietnam (99 days), Thailand’s success in containing the coronavirus has depended on strictly-policed borders that have been closed to most foreigners for months. But New Zealand and Vietnam prove that success can be fleeting, as both were caught off-guard by second, even-larger outbreaks.
Thailand, where mask use and social distancing are waning and economic hardship growing, is now facing the same pressure as did the United States and India, which judged “the cure worse than the disease” and reopened their economies (too soon), only see to see the virus explode across each region again, wreaking even more economic damage.
Europe and the Caribbean took their time in reopening, but now are battling resurgent outbreaks after allowing tourists to return.
Thailand’s government tourism officials and business leaders have rolled out a string of proposals to restart foreign tourism, but Prayut on Wednesday doubled down on his spokeswoman’s comments over the weekend that foreign tourists are not welcome yet.
So, after 100 days virus-free, where does that leave Thailand?
Thailand on Wednesday reported eight more imported coronavirus cases in state quarantine, raising its total since the start of the outbreak to 3,425. Of that number, 3,274 patients have recovered, and the death toll is 58.
Eight new cases comprised six persons, traveling from the U.S., one case from Australia and the other from Japan. Currently, 93 coronavirus patients are being treated in hospitals.
The country also started developing its own vaccine, which has been proven safe and effective in triggering an immune response in monkeys. However, human trials set to start next month have been delayed indefinitely as the country sets aside money to secure stocks and manufacturing of foreign vaccine candidates that are further along.
The trek to 100 days has not been smooth and is under threat from the fresh second wave in Vietnam and a raging outbreak in Myanmar that has prompted school closures and increased border security in the past week. There also have been numerous scares, including false reports of positive local tests, thousands of teenagers without masks attending a concert, rogue infected airmen from Egypt and foreign diplomats that evaded proper quarantines.
There also has been persistent skepticism about the country’s official coronavirus statistics, including incidents in which Burmese migrants deported home tested positive, Thai and Japanese travelers testing positive in Japan and a Malaysian man testing positive after going back to Kuala Lumpur.
100 days is quite a feat, but Thailand also is become complacent about mask use and social distancing, with too many thinking the country is immune from reinfection and acting intolerant of even a single infection, an attitude the government foolishly has reinforced. The streak is going going to end. A second wave will occur. It’s just a matter of when.
Thailand’s people may be healthy, but its economy is in critical condition. The coronavirus pandemic has killed tourism inside the country and sapped the global demand that fuels its manufacturing and export sectors. This double-whammy resulted in the steepest drop in gross domestic product in 22 years in the second quarter.
The outgoing Bank of Thailand governor acknowledged the economy’s problems, but said the pandemic was not so much the source of the pain as the catalyst for deeper structural problems. Thailand is too dependent upon foreign sources of income and the economy is in need of restructuring, he said.
Case in point: Unemployment has reached historic proportions, but employers are having trouble filing tens of thousands of jobs. And the economic problems only stand to get worse as the government backtracks on pledges to allow migrant workers to re-enter the country for the labor-staved construction and fishing industries.
The government also is finding its own finances stressed by the huge outlays the pandemic and the border controls are costing. Just this week the Cabinet approved another 883 million baht to run state quarantine centers. Last week it committed a billion baht to the vaccine effort and, before that, 25 billion on domestic-tourism promotion. It also dropped an earlier self-sufficiency pledge by taking a massive loan from the Asian Development Bank.
Meanwhile, a new economic stimulus package is in the works, but the government said it can’t afford another round of cash handouts to the jobless.
Prayut said Wednesday that the Center for Economic Situation Administration has discussed numerous measures to mitigate the impact of pandemic recession, using a 400-billion-baht rehabilitation budget. So far, only a quarter of it has been spent, however.
The prime minister said the center was considering how to spend the rest of the budget, including soft loans for small and medium-sized enterprises and money to create jobs for the students who will graduate this year and the people who lost their jobs in 2019 and 2020.
As Prayut said Wednesday, foreign tourism isn’t happening anytime soon. Officials are just unwilling to take any sort of risk as they watched hundreds of cases pile up in Myanmar over just the past two weeks, and nationwide spread of the virus in Vietnam after 99 Covid-free days there.
As the kneejerk panic over the Rayong-Egyptian airman incident showed, the government doesn’t trust its own medical system enough to even allow one case of the coronavirus inside the borders.
All would require visitors to stay in hugely expensive “alternative state quarantine” villas for 14 days, be restricted to one province for 21 days, undergo several rounds of testing, obtain hard-to-get documentation and carry US$100,000 in insurance. With limited flights and sky-high airfares, who is going to pay a half-million baht or more for a holiday? And who has that amount of time to take off work?
Sane and pragmatic people understand that if Thailand hopes to save its tourism industry and the people who depend on it, it’s time to take the plunge and create “travel bubbles” with countries like Taiwan, New Zealand, (parts of) China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and others who have brought the pandemic under control. Yes, there is risk, but it’s manageable.
Clearly, domestic tourism is not getting the job done. The government put out 25 billion baht for a host of subsidized tourism campaigns only to see them flop. Economists said Thai travelers have breathed life into a dead industry, but it’s far from what is needed.
All one needs to do is look at Pattaya, Chiang Mai, and Phuket to see that weekend or holiday events may spike numbers but are not enough to keep hotels from closing. Perhaps finally offering expats the same benefits might help, but 500 baht is just an insult when Thais received thousands each.
Speaking of expats, what happens after September 26 when the current pandemic visa amnesty ends? Immigration is extending, for another month, some visas and converting other visa types, but a mass exodus has begun and, without another extension or drastic change in policy, will result in a large number of the estimated 400,000 foreigners subject to current amnesty leaving the country, unable to return for the foreseeable future.
It’s not like the situation that prompted the amnesty extensions has changed. Visa runs to Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia still are not possible. Thailand is still only letting 500 Thais, work permit holders and permanent residents to return. At this rate, it’s going to get even quieter in Thailand in October.
The Final Grade
Judged simply on virus-control terms, Thailand’s response to the pandemic should be graded an A. And to go 100 days without an official local case is commendable. But, judged overall, the government’s plan to control the coronavirus has been similar to the way the virus hijacks the immune system to kill the patient. Prayut has killed the virus, but the patient is dying along with it.
Yes, Thais are physically healthy, but their mental state is deteriorating (as evidenced by the surging number of suicides) and their economic state is even worse. A fifth of the country’s income depends on tourism and, in places like Pattaya, cities have seen total collapses of the retail and service sectors.
No one wants to see Thailand become America, with its 175,000 dead and 6 million cases. But, likewise, it doesn’t have to lock itself in a cloister. There needs to be a happy medium if it hopes to survive this crisis.