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Thailand's future could be in danger if it doesn't rethink its anti-pandemic policies

12 Aug 2020

The future of Thailand could well be in danger if the government fails to take urgent action to recalibrate its anti-pandemic policies. All the excellent measures that the authorities concerned, as well as the public, have taken in the last six months to mitigate the coronavirus could easily turn against them. Thailand could emerge from Covid-19 with even more disgruntled Thais including repatriated ones. Worse, there will likely be more unhappy foreign countries including their diplomats and citizens who have encountered discriminatory actions, some of which have been against the Diplomatic Relations Convention in Vienna.

There are two important trends to consider.

Firstly, public expectations are so high at the moment that no new community transmissions will be tolerated. No single local case has been reported for the past 78 days, resulting in Thailand being praised by the international community as one of the top countries in the world to contain the virus. The Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) highlighted the "zero" cases and urged the public to continue wearing masks, practice social distancing, and frequently wash their hands. The focus of
CCSA 's daily press conference now is all about the cases imported and their consequences.

In general, referring to imported cases is a complicated issue, because they involve both Thais and foreigners. The long process of securing flights, physical check-ups and other formalities in the case of Thai citizens need to be followed to the letter. The "fit to fly" certificate was specifically designed to ensure that whoever wants to enter Thailand during the pandemic must have a physical check-up and be in good health. Thai families, civil society groups and local media have late criticized these measures as a tool to delay or even prevent them from returning home.

They argue that the CCSA has become so obsessed with flattening the curve to the level of "zero" that it has attempted to prevent outsiders from entering the country. A total of 66,329 Thais (43,297 by air, 22,203 by land, and 829 by sea) returned home safely between 4 April and 3 Aug. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least 15,145 Thais living in 97 countries and territories have expressed a wish to return home over the next two months. All Thai returnees have to go through the government-paid state or local quarantine or alternative quarantine if they prefer but at their own expense.

Criticism of the CCSA has also intensified in recent weeks with fresh anti-Prayut protests ongoing. They have accused the government of foul play with the fourth extension of emergency measures until the end of August, saying it is trying to prolong its grip on power by maintaining the case template "zero." Interestingly, the protesters continue to link public health and public safety issues with the domestic political scene.

Second, the CCSA has been extremely tough in handling foreign visitors, which has already caused a wide range of diplomatic community protests that would have far-reaching repercussions for future economic discovery plans in the country. A handful of foreigners are currently allowed into Thailand. In personal interviews with some leading businessmen, everyone agreed that with such a rigorous policy, the economic costs would be extremely high, as the economic growth of the country is already in the deep red. The slowdown in the Thai economy has already been estimated by international financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at around minus 8 per cent.

Early last month, the headlines and hearsay generated by Egyptian aircraft flying into Rayong's U-Tapao International Airport and their subsequent city behaviour, with one infection tracked, deepened the suspicion that foreign visitors were spreading the virus even though the laboratory tests had negative results. Rayong authorities had to trace all residents who were believed to come into contact with the Egyptians, or who were visiting the same shopping mall. None have been infected, as it turned out. At the time, the fear of spreading the virus reached near hysteria, calling on the government to pay compensation for lost income during the Rayong temporary lockdown and to bar all foreign visitors. Lest we forget, there was a false alarm in late February, when South Korea was hit hard by the coronavirus, blaming the influx of Thai workers coming home for being possible spreaders of viruses. In reality, they just wanted to take advantage of the Korean government's granted amnesty.

The damage is done, however, was greater for a returning European Union ( EU) official who was forbidden to return to her condominium on July 16. A diplomatic row between Thailand and the European Commission was caused by the decision not to allow her entry by the legal person of her residence. She later agreed to go through what is known as alternative state quarantine (ASQ) in her condominium, instead of self-quarantine, which all foreign diplomats are supposed to do. The legal person at her residence, coming hot on the heels of the Rayong scare, took a unilateral decision to block her entry. Worse yet, some bloggers and local media hailed the action as heroic although this blatant behaviour contravened the 1961 Vienna Diplomatic Relations Convention. 

The European Commission in Bangkok has already recommended in response to this faux pas that Brussels withdraw Thailand from the list of 15 "safe" countries announced on July 1 that are eligible for travel to EU member states. Thailand is the only Asean member chosen by the EU because of its effective Covid-19 management. The commission has complained about the preponderance of Thai social media for misinforming the public about the diplomatic community. As Thailand's foreign diplomats their status is protected by the Vienna Convention. They are not so-called "VIPs" which mean the privileged and powerful elite of the country, in the Thai context. 

After the Rayong incident on July 22, the CCSA imposed the 14-day state and alternative state quarantine, replacing the self-quarantine that immediately caused unrest among Bangkok-based embassies over the unilateral action of Thailand. Some promised to reciprocate as Thai diplomats entered their countries. Indeed, the CSSA should learn how to handle quarantine for foreigners from Seoul. With no quarantine, diplomats with negative Covid-19 tests are allowed in. 

The panicked response also applied to the visiting American troops scheduled to participate in joint military exercises that lasted for years. With anti-foreign sentiment running high in terms of importing the virus, politicians and the media have questioned the motives of the government to accept them. They completely ignored the fact that all incoming personnel must go through stringent Covid-19 measures undertaken without exception by the Thai authorities. 

In the coming weeks, educating the Thai public about the current situation will be imperative, instead of focusing on numerical achievements. The CCSA must know how to manage public expectations that are now fully embedded in the 58-fold "zero" infection and low death rate from June 2. If that trend continues, any new cases that emerge with more lockdown easing could have a devastating effect on the image and stability of the government. It will ignite a new cycle of stakeholders and politicians blame game. 

Again, Thailand should also learn from Vietnam, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore that opening up the country carries some risks — namely new infections no matter how effective the preventive measures are — but it is essential to kick-start the country's economic recovery in the 'new normal' era. It's essential to public understanding of this, otherwise, the future is bleak.

Source Bangkok Post