Is Thailand ready to re-open; neighbours offer glimpse of dangers of reopening

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said that his government will consider this week whether to re-open the country by the end of the month and ease state-of-emergency provisions introduced to help curb the spread of coronavirus.

Prayut said that he will seek the advice of his health and economic advisors before making a decision.

But even as business and industry leaders publicly stated their eagerness to re-start the economy, health analysts say that there are a myriad of dangers in rushing a return to normalcy.

WHO Guidelines

According to the WHO’s interim guideline called “Considerations in adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19,” large scale decisions should be based on risk assessment.

The WHO said the risk assessment should be based on four indicators including epidemiological factors, health care capacities, public health capacities and availability of effective pharmaceutical intervention.

Sornchai Suneta, Executive Vice-President of Siam Commercial Bank and the Managing Director of its Chief Investment Office (CIO), told Thai Enquirer that Thailand passes most of the WHO’s guidelines for reopening the country.   

Sornchai said that the number of new confirmed cases in Thailand has been steadily declining and that the number of recovered patients increase every day.

141 patients recovered from the virus on Sunday bringing the total number of discharged patients to 1,928. There are now more recovered patients than patients that remain in hospital. Meanwhile, the government only discovered 32 new cases of the virus.

However, according to Sornchai, Thailand still falls short of one criterion necessary for the opening up the country according to the WHO. That is to make sure that the country’s healthcare sector is sufficiently equipped and “enable the major shift from detecting and treating mainly serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases.”

“This is very challenging for Thailand,” he said. “We must make sure that we can immediately detect if there is a possibility for a second wave of the outbreak and this will require technologies that we currently do not have,” he added.

Sornchai said that the healthcare sector is stretched thin and that medical supplies must be available. A TE interview with Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul earlier this month revealed that many hospitals around the country still face supply shortages.

“If we do not put in place these measures before we reopen then we are back to zero and all of the containment efforts will become worthless and the 2.4 trillion baht relief packages will no longer be enough to tackle it,” he said.

Neighbor offer glimpse of second wave dangers

Thailand does not have to look far to see the dangers of re-opening the country too fast. Singapore’s health ministry confirmed 942 cases of coronavirus on Sunday bringing the total number of cases in the city-state to 5,992. It is now the site of ASEAN’s biggest outbreak.

But during the initial phase of the outbreak, Singapore was praised widely for its handling of the virus and the immediate measures it put in place to make sure that the disease does not spread.

In fact, just earlier this month, Thailand was ahead of Singapore in terms of confirmed cases and the death toll. Now, a second wave of infections threatens to overwhelm the island-nation’s healthcare infrastructure.

Japan too has had to declare a nationwide emergency after a second wave of infections spread throughout the country. Shinzo Abe’s mixed program of social distancing and continuing the economy seemingly has backfired.

Test to be sure

While Thailand’s government has pointed to the country’s low numbers as evidence that it was fighting the disease with success, critics say that minimal numbers mean nothing without extensive testing.

Government spokesman Dr Thaweesin Visanuyothin told Thais earlier this month that such a measure was unnecessary because the country’s focussed testing was working and adequate.

“Mass testing is very very expensive,” he said at the time.

Yet the WHO and health ministries around the world have talked about the importance of mass testing to not only accurately gauge the country’s infection rates but to also curb its spread.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”

According to the government on Monday, Thailand has conducted 142,589 samples. That equates to roughly 1,400 tests per 1 million people. This can be compared to 16,203 tests per 1 million people in Singapore and the 3,000 tests per 1 million in Malaysia.

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