Paradise Lockdown

How Thailand’s Phuket Island flattened its coronavirus curve

Aeedchurtong behind her bar

By: Nina Milhaud

Supitaara Aeedchurtong sat atop the fridge in the middle of her empty bar, her face creased by worry. She had removed bottles of liquor from the colorful wooden shelves and had piled up the chairs in a corner. A few regulars had come that morning and sat on the wooden high chairs across the bar, gazing upon the view in silence. They knew they wouldn’t see the beach for a while.

Bangtao, an upscale area with lots of foreign residents, would just like the other beaches on Phuket island remain closed to the public until further notice. Those foreign residents protect the area somewhat from devastation, unlike other areas such as Patong, where the mass tourism market remains largely deserted, not yet recovered from an order requesting bars and other entertainment venues to close. Despite that order, Aeedchurtong had resisted. Customers, mostly groups of tourists, were still coming. Fierce, the tiny 43-year-old bar owner swore that she wouldn’t close.

Kay, as she is known universally, bought the bar four years ago when she moved from Trang, four hours away. She hasn’t left Bangtao beach since. The money she made allowed her to feed her two kids back home.

Soon the police started to make rounds along the road which ran along the beach, and Aeedchurtong was forced to bend to the orders. Roadblocks were erected and security cordons were laid to block access to the beach. Aeedchurtong’s bar closed. Across the whole island, chairs were stacked up on tables in restaurant terraces and tourist shops bordering the roads were shut. Driving across Phuket was like racing across empty stretches of heated asphalt. Even traffic lights had stopped working.

In early March, tourists still roamed carefree, packing white-sand beaches during the day and hitting the beach clubs’ at night. News related to the outbreak remained a distant hum. Yet in a matter of two weeks, Thailand’s most popular resort destination emptied as Covid-19 started to spread, swallowing the jobs of locals who depend on tourism to make a living. A veil of worry fell on the island. From hotel employees to souvenir shop owners, fruit vendors and masseuses, nobody was spared.

Thailand’s economy was hard hit. The tourism industry accounts for 21.6 percent of GDP, with 9 percent of jobs in the tourism sector, one of the highest shares of employment in tourism in Southeast Asia. In January and February 2020, the total number of international tourists who arrived in Thailand dropped by 20 percent compared to last year. Tourism income dropped by 23 percent, with the largest decrease in tourists from China.

“We lost 80-90 percent of our customers in the matter of a month,” said Simo El Omari, a senior manager at a luxury hotel in Layan beach. He has worked in Phuket’s hotel industry for 12 years, and he has never seen it go through such a tough time.

“We are laying off a lot of people, mostly those who aren’t seen as being in hand,” he said. “As a luxury chain, we know that most nationalities’ people won’t be staying at luxury hotels with the recession that is coming.”

Six million people employed in the tourism sector will end up unemployed if Thailand loses about 30 million tourists, according to the latest estimates. This would cause the Thai economy to lose Bt1.3 trillion, almost all of it in the tourism sector.

Hotels were not the only businesses affected. Maxime Montoloy, who owns a beachfront restaurant in Bangtao, also had to send all 12 of his staff home. The chef said he lost 40 percent of his customers in the last three weeks before he had to close. When he realized might not be able to reopen for another couple of months, he launched a meal delivery service, catering to old clients with dishes from his restaurant’s menu he now cooks from home.

“I’m keeping in touch with my staff and make sure they are fine,” said Montoloy. But the chef said he would have to implement a two-week rotation when his restaurant will be back in business, cutting salaries by two and making staff work two weeks a month.

“It’s the only solution if I don’t want to lay people off,” he explained.

Despite suffering from the blow to his business, Montoloy still thinks the government managed the situation well.

If compared with other countries hit by the pandemic, Thailand kept itself well afloat. While Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia recorded close to 64,000, 45,000, and 8,700 cases respectively and Singapore went through a severe second wave of infections with more than 44,000 cases recorded, the total number of infections in Thailand stayed just over 3,000 as of July 1, ranking 95th worldwide. The number of recovered cases took a sharp increase in Thailand, with active cases dropping towards zero.

Source: The Bangkok Post, May 3

The government’s stringent measures were key to the taming of the virus. In early March, with 43 cases reported, the government laid out strict rules and guidelines to control the outbreak. All travelers from major infected zones had to go through mandatory self-quarantine for 14 days to enter the country. On March 26, the government imposed a state of emergency, banning all public gatherings and limiting international arrivals. On April 2, all international flights were banned from entering Thailand and a nation-wide curfew was imposed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

“It took exactly 55 days for Thailand to go from zero cases on March 10, to zero cases again on May 4th. It is the combination of all these measures which made a real difference,” said Phiangjai Boonsuk, who works as a national officer for health emergencies at the WHO’s Thailand office.

In Phuket, measures enforced by the provincial government were even more aggressive. In early April, the island had registered 170 confirmed cases, making it the province with the highest infection rate per capita. The provincial authorities immediately enforced a lockdown prohibiting movement between the island’s 17 sub-districts for a period of 14 days. Phuket became the only province in Thailand to impose a total lockdown, closing all of its air, land and sea entry points for over a month.

Infected cases were traced one by one, and had all of their potentially contaminated contacts identified, tested and put under mandatory quarantine. Neighborhoods with multiple infected cases were sealed and locked down from the rest of the island until they became virus-free for at least 14 days.

In late March, a family living in the compound where I was staying tested positive for the virus. The next day, we received a call from the Health Ministry inquiring about our state of health and requesting us to self-quarantine for two weeks. After two weeks of isolation, none of us had developed symptoms and we were allowed to go out again.

The stringent measures paid off. By the end of April, the number of new infected cases dropped to zero, and on May 3, restaurants and shops were allowed to reopen with strict hygiene measures in place. Virus-free sub-districts reopened progressively.

Restaurants and residents across the island organized daily meal donations for the most vulnerable segments of the population, including migrant workers from Myanmar, who are not supported by the local social security system.

Financial and fiscal relief measures put in place by the Thai government also played a large part in helping people. On March 20, the government started offering financial assistance to workers registered under the social security system who had lost or being suspended from their jobs.

The Phuket lockdown was gradually eased, starting with the lifting of travel restrictions between sub-districts across the island. On May 17, restaurants, malls, shops, gyms and public swimming pools were allowed to reopen, followed by beaches on June 9. On July 1, schools and night entertainment venues reopened with strict health guidelines.

“We are having discussions on how to get people comfortable to travel again, especially for other nationalities. The Chinese are not afraid to travel. Once the travel ban is off in South-East Asia, tourists from Asia are going to come to Phuket. Tourists will flood in Phuket but not anytime soon, probably in four to five months from now,” said El Omari.

Restaurants gradually reopened with strict hygiene measures to keep customers coming. Montoloy’s restaurant is located in one of Phuket’s “red” neighborhoods where new infected cases were recorded until early May.

“When we do reopen, the staff will have to wear protective facemasks and gloves and we’ll space out tables,” said Montoloy. The lockdown on the area was finally eased on May 16, after two weeks without new infections. Montoloy reopened his restaurant on May 17. He only filled a few tables that day, but he was confident that business would be back soon.

Aeedchurtong’s bar is also located in the same neighborhood. But without stable revenue for the past three months, she can’t afford to open for now.

“I like to make customers happy, relaxed, enjoy their time,” she said. “It makes me happy. People come from everywhere to my bar. But now because of coronavirus I have no money to buy alcohol, so I cannot open the bar.”

Nina Milhaud is a student at the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Center.

See related story: Indonesia Compounds its Covid-19 Problems