It’s not too late to fix Thailand’s broken pandemic response (Opinion)

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha watches on as Health Minister and public relations nightmare Anutin Charnvirakul takes his medicine.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha watches on as Health Minister and public relations nightmare Anutin Charnvirakul takes his medicine.

For the better part of 2020, Thailand succeeded in its efforts to slow, even stop, the spread of COVID-19.

A strong public health system that citizens trust gave it a clear advantage in the unprecedented, early days of the pandemic. For a year, it’s numbers and mortality remained low while the rest of the world burned. It was Thailand’s time to shine, and shine it did.

In July, the World Health Organization hailed Thailand’s “‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’” approach in a documentary highlighting successful response models. That may sound as exciting as another season of The Stranded, but it was a feather in the cap for the government. What has happened since then has been as deflating and mystifying as, well, the first season of The Stranded.

In December, an outbreak at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon led the authorities to enclose migrant worker dorms in barbed wire and enact virus-curbing restrictions. In Bangkok, bars were ordered to shut, official backs were patted, and by March we were back to business as usual, despite outbreaks of concern in markets in Bang Khae and Pathum Thani.

After a third outbreak just before Songkran that was tracked to the same Thonglor go-go bars reportedly frequented by government ministers, the powers that be opted to leave things open and let people travel to limit the damage to morale and the economy. (No Thonglor condos were surrounded with barbed wire, either.)

That gamble failed. The quasi-lockdown we’re now enduring has shuttered outdoor parks while VVIP-owned malls remain open, and case numbers over the past month have averaged roughly 1,000 a day in the greater Bangkok area alone.

But all is not lost and Thailand can still emerge as a success story if politics take a back seat to the sound judgment of public health professionals and “Nobody’s safe until everybody’s safe” is treated as more than a convenient aphorism.


Thailand should work to acquire as many clinically approved vaccines as it is able to, and take the leash off private enterprises who want to use their money to acquire more. This is not the time for the top-down approach favored by the junta hangovers running the nation.

It should then ditch the baroque and bureaucratic registration system and simply make them available to anyone with a pulse of the eligible age or risk group, based on its limited supply, at vaccination centers.

While the world’s richest nations poured billions into vaccine development and rollout, Thailand put all its chips on one, the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, and one unproven manufacturer, Siam Bioscience, to make it. Under pressure, it has imported vaccines from China that, right or wrong, the public does not seem to trust.

Meanwhile reports emerge of the best-connected men sidelining millions of doses for their constituents, such as the entire rural province of Buriram, while tourism money dynamos like Phuket flex their muscle to cut in line.

The warring fiefdoms, petty personality clashes and conflicting information has fostered distrust and surging vaccine hesitancy in a population that, in January, was one of the world’s most willing to take their medicine.

Protect the marginalized

The approach needs to be as color- and passport-blind as the virus. Migrant workers and immigrants, whether in the privileged professional class or indigent refugees, need to be care for equally. Not left sweating in dark confinement, eating uncooked meat – not to mention the prison system.

The same proactive public health policy behind the drive to vaccinate at-risk communities such as the poorest in Khlong Toei should extend to at least monitoring other vulnerable if less cosmopolitan populations living in crowded worker villages or incarcerated in overcrowded cells.

Again, there’s the barbed wire thing. That’s happened more than once. While migrants and inmates were locked away out of sight, celebs like Araya “Chompoo” Hargate were getting their first jabs.

Spending what it takes to protect the health of the people who build the nation and feed it will pay dividends when the nation is poised to bound back later.

And, yes, expats may complain a lot, but they’re people too. Older retirees and veterans who can’t travel for health or financial reasons should have been welcomed in the first wave rather than given hamfisted excuses about smartphone apps. And please stop telling their embassies you’ve got this, it only gives them more cover to give them the cold shoulder.

Support damaged industries

Workers in the food service industry continue to reiterate that they haven’t received financial support. Some restaurant owners have suggested that their furloughed employees have not been able to receive social security compensation, either.

The bars have arguably had it worse. Not only have they been closed for six of the past 12 months, in 2020, the government cracked down on alcohol advertisements as well as online sales, further damaging livelihoods.

While Alternative State Quarantine may offer a financial lifeline for some hotels, a visit to destinations like Phuket, Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, or, really, anywhere other than maybe Hua Hin reveals the challenges the hospitality industry faces in its recovery.

The Thai Hotels Association said at least 1 million workers had been laid off, and that was nine months ago.

In summary, here’s the prescription: Make vaccination truly universal, drop registration requirements, communicate eligibility, open mass vaccination centers and square with everyone about what is and isn’t possible. We know there’s limits.

The bungled rollout so far has blown us past the time to save face. But the final chapter has yet to be written, and a little dose of hard truth is a medicine we all can swallow.

These are solely the views of BK and Coconuts Bangkok’s editorial management.

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