Natapanu Nopakun is a Deputy Director-General at the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but is better known as the face of Thailand’s English-language Covid-19 public communications. At the height of the pandemic in March and April, the Covid-19 press briefing took place daily. Mr. Nopakun would take the 15 minutes after Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, the Thai-language spokesman of the government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), translating live the contents of Dr. Taweesilp’s briefing and supplementing it with information more relevant to his English-speaking audience.
Now, the press briefings take place three times a week – soon to be scaled down to once a week. The press conference area is particularly casual: the carefully laid out chairs are empty (as they have been since reports of a government official infected with COVID-19 in the vicinity), and the camera crew far outnumbers the officials present. When Dr. Taweesilp and Mr. Nopakun speak, their staffers continue their work in the background, typing away on laptops. The whole affair is finished in less than an hour.
But the moment you leave the Government House, immediately the briefings come up in conversation with taxi drivers and shopkeepers.
In his own words, Mr. Nopakun has some points to say about the broader context behind communicating Covid-19.
Some contents of the interview have been edited for concision and clarity:
Has disinformation been a problem in publicly communicating Covid-19?
Disinformation and misinformation are two different things. Disinformation involves intentionally misleading people with malicious or false information, while misinformation is erroneously saying the wrong thing. During the Covid-19 period, there was an important piece of disinformation that was spread, where some people tried to create the impression that Thais returning were bringing back the virus and spreading it in the country.
Thais have a right, according to the constitution, to return to their country. Everyone has a right to return to their own country – no matter how sick. Some took a surface-level approach to the issue, seeing only that some Thais coming back were infected. But in fact those who returned were all put in controlled environments, and all had to go to state quarantine. Of course, there were initial problems in April where some were not willing to go into quarantine, but now we have six or seven different types of quarantine that are utilized for both Thais and foreigners
This is important, because it created stigma and discrimination against not just Thais but also foreigners, anyone coming into the country.
Has it been a challenge coordinating with various organizations to ensure transparency and clarity?
Every organization has their own objective. When there’s a crisis, you need to integrate policy, which is a challenge because in the beginning of a crisis anywhere in the world, there would be complete bureaucratic confusion. But from my perspective, you need to look at the broader picture. We can’t try to pinpoint protection for one particular group, because the disease is borderless, boundary-less. As far as the MFA was concerned, our main challenge was trying to stop the stigma around people from other countries coming home.
There was a poster for example, which was produced by an agency that was slightly misleading, which said: there are now zero Thai infections, but there are a number of migrants infected.
It made it seem as if the migrant infection numbers didn’t matter. Of course, migrants matter, and Thailand has international commitments in terms of human rights and respect migrant health and safety. We’ve spoken at IOM specifically about this. And in the end, they changed this poster, but it’s important to communicate things in a way that is politically correct for everyone in the nation.
What is the power and role of the MFA in all of this?
Every organization has the right to communicate on their own behalf, every organization has their own interests. But when it’s something at the macro or national level, we can provide input, especially if there’s an international dimension. We’re lucky that many people listen to the MFA, because we have the global perspective on many issues like migrants’ rights.
When there’s a crisis, of course, it can be difficult to get together and iron out an integrated message, because people turn to their own advisers and committees. But it’s now much more integrated because of the CCSA.
The CCSA has ten operations centers, and we head the operation center on foreign affairs, which manages and takes care of people coming in from abroad (while the security agencies and Interior Ministry controls the enforcement of curfews or social distancing).
But in terms of communication specifically, there’s English and Thai. In Thai the Ministry of Health communicates because the doctors have technical details, but as the Prime Minister also recognizes the importance of communicating directly with English speakers, so we handle that.
It’s the first time we’ve ever had extensive English-language briefings from the government during a crisis. We receive our complaints from social media, and I channel it directly through the CCSA’s clearing house, so the government is aware, and my team listens to that.
The problem is, despite the fact that our economy is becoming fairly advanced, we are very rarely internationally oriented and have very few English language channels. People have told me that we should do this more in the future, that when we speak directly to the English language audience and answer their questions, they feel confident that the government cares.
Of course, there are people who say I don’t give enough detail in my briefings, but I only have fifteen minutes of airtime to speak which I make full use of.
How do you manage communicating contradictory information? For example, when the government was changing its policy daily on inbound travel?
It’s a good thing, actually, that in situations like this you can adapt and adjust on a daily basis. The circumstances are very fluid, so you can’t anchor yourself on what was said on a particular Monday if there’s a changing situation in the days that follow.
In this sense, some people look too broadly, and other people look too narrowly. The ministry needs to be able to balance between many factors. For example, in terms of inbound travel, we take into account three factors: is there enough space for quarantine? Are there enough flights? Are there enough doctors? So when people ask us why they can’t fly immediately, even if they have the right documents, we need to take into account these other factors too.