Thailand’s Misplaced Priorities Against Pandemic

Government uses virus as an excuse to tighten the screws on its citizens

By Pithaya Pookaman

While Thailand seems to be reaping international accolades, particularly from the World Health Organization, the United Kingdom and the Japanese and German press, for boasting one of the world’s lowest rates of transmission and fatalities of Covid-19, it is also coasting on thin ice which could easily shatter, exposing its vulnerability to economic catastrophe of unimaginable proportion as well as social upheaval. 

Since the military coup in 2014, Thailand has become the “sick man of Asia” with the economy floundering, household debts burgeoning, confidence sinking, and people’s livelihood worsening.  The advent of Covid-19 could have far-reaching repercussions for Thailand more than any other country in the region.

To date, Thailand has a cumulative total of fewer than 3,000 Coronavirus cases and 51 related deaths which is still among the lowest in Asia save for Taiwan, which has outperformed much of the world with fewer cases of infections and only a single-digit tally in fatalities. It is uncertain at this point whether Thailand’s lack of cases is due to luck or lack of a realistic count.

On March 26, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha slapped an emergency decree which placed a limit on people’s movements and business activities nationwide and forced people to stay home for one month in an effort to stem the spread of the epidemic.  One day before the decree came into effect, Thailand had more than 800 cases of Covid-19 infections and only four deaths, which was considered low by any standard at that time.  After more than a month, Prayuth has not found a winning exit strategy to emerge from the pandemic without painful rebuilding of a tattered economy.

Since Thailand didn’t have a runaway spike of coronavirus cases as in Europe or the US, the imposition of the emergency decree was meant, perhaps, to rectify the flaws in government management of the pandemic. At the start, the Thai government was still dragging its feet in combating the virus by leaving its borders wide open to the influx of Chinese tourists, many of whom were likely to be infected. 

By mid-February, the government was still not enforcing a travel ban on the Chinese but was instead toying with the idea of permanent visa-free entry for Chinese and Indian tourists while Singapore, with a predominantly Chinese population, had taken a bold step to ban the holders of Chinese passports from entering the city-state.

When the Trump administration moved to impose travel restrictions on Chinese travelers with effect from February 2, the Prayuth government was still welcoming the Chinese with open arms even with the lure of free handout incentives. The government only reacted when China imposed a ban on all incoming foreign travelers and forbade its citizens from leaving the country, a ban which included traveling to Thailand.

With no more Chinese coming to Thailand, the Prayuth government finally came to its senses. On March 28 the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand took the first step to close down the country by temporarily banning all incoming international flights into the kingdom.

Another blunder by the Thai government to contain the deadly virus was its double standard application of preventive measures by turning a blind eye to Muay Thai bouts at Lumpini boxing stadium in the center of Bangkok in March organized by army boxing promoters. Although the army chief had ordered the event to be investigated, the confirmation of a super spreader of Covid-19 present at the packed boxing stadium had already sent shock waves through Bangkok and the country at large.  The public outcry had prompted the lethargic government to take serious measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The nationwide semi-lockdown, although not justifiable due to the comparatively low number of infections and deaths, has come with enormous economic and social costs. Human Rights Watch has accused the government of using “anti-fake news” laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response. The state of emergency that went into effect on March 26 has heightened concerns of greater repression of free speech.

The use of the emergency decree represents a massive overreach by the Prayuth government to trample on freedom of the press and civil liberties. It is the instrument of the Prayuth regime to resuscitate an embattled government plagued by mismanagement and rampant corruption. 

While across the US many Americans are taking to the streets in protest of lockdown orders as unnecessary infringements on civil liberties and potential long-term damage to the economy, impoverished Thai citizens are descending upon government offices desperately demanding cash handouts of Bt5000 (US$154) as remedial measures promised by the government. Many of them, after being fed up with the government’s condescending attitude, have to return home disappointed and hungry.

To make matters worse, the government plans to cut the budget earmarked for the universal health care coverage (UHC) scheme by Bt2.4 billion (US$74 million).  The universal health scheme, initially called “30 baht cure-for-all diseases,” was implemented by the government of Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown by the military coup in 2006 on dubious charges.  The military and the elites who were infected with the “Thaksin Derangement Virus” have ever since been trying to undo the policies which helped sweep Thaksin to power time and time again. However, they have only managed to change the names of his policies but not the substance.

With Covid-19 to contend with, the politicization of the universal health care scheme would definitely obscure the benefit accrued to the Thai people, and the social fallout from such spending cuts would be quite unimaginable. Unceremoniously, the budget cut came at the time when the government green-lighted the purchase of weapons such as submarines and armored vehicles. 

Although the government has promised to reimburse Covid-19 treatment for all hospitals at an enormous cost to government coffers, there is still a moral imperative for sustaining an accessible public health system. The majority of the Thai people are suffering from shrinking incomes while being burdened with increasing household debts and unemployment, all of which are adversely impacting social stability. The signs are already becoming apparent as the suicide rate is beginning to soar for the first time in Thailand’s history.

In the absence of a rationale for heavy-handed preventive and mitigation measures, many small- and medium-size business enterprises, save for a few big conglomerates which have quid-pro-quo relations with the Prayuth regime have already gone under.  Even Thailand’s national flag carrier is on the verge of bankruptcy due to mismanagement and the prolonged Covid-19 lockdown. 

For authoritarian regimes, an emergency law can also be weaponized to quell opposition and suppress fundamental rights.  The present Thai regime is the product of the 2014 coup d’etat which ousted a democratically elected government.  Its worn-out narrative that security should take precedence over freedom, liberty, and economic well-being has no place in the democratic world community. 

The regime might do well to take cues from Sweden, Taiwan, and other democratic countries which have great successes in containing Covid-19 without foregoing the principle of democracy.

The Prayuth regime doesn’t deserve the credit for Thailand’s low number of Covid-19 transmissions and fatalities and shouldn’t bask in the international praises heaped upon Thailand. The regime should recognize that apparent success in the handling of the epidemic is attributed to the people’s vigilance in taking proper hygienic measures. The material contribution and moral support by the politicians and civil societies are also invaluable for those most affected by the government lockdown.  Prayuth should also be thankful for the efficient public health system which was put in place during the Thaksin administration more than two decades ago.

Will the Prayuth regime have to wait until Thailand achieves zero Coronavirus infections before easing the lockdown?  Should the government wait for an economic apocalypse or until the suicide figure surpasses that of the Coronavirus fatalities before lifting the emergency law?  Lastly, how long should the Thai people wrap themselves in a fetal position of submissiveness before they can be free to live the lives that they want?

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile, and Ecuador. He currently lives in Bangkok.