Editorial: Thailand’s worst coronavirus surge so far puts the government on the line

On April 8th, as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was about to enter a van, he gave some brief remarks to the press. The coronavirus had returned to Thailand with a vengeance, after a cluster of cases found in Thonglor’s entertainment centers, and cases were threatening to spike right before the Songkran break. 

“Whatever happens, happens,” he told the assembled reporters. 

It was a striking statement.

He had opted not to exhort the people to join together and defeat a new, virulent surge, nor had he promised the government would get the situation under control. Whatever happens, happens — these are the words of a man seemingly resigned to, at best, a certain nonchalance about the immediate future. 

That the prime minister is exhausted by his duties is unsurprising. I probably am not alone in noticing how he has visibly aged in his seven years in office, and the past year of troubles would have only been an accelerant in that process. And it appears that his increasingly weary complexion also reflects an increasingly weary body politic — one that is being asked, once again, to gear up for a fight, but one for which it is finding it difficult to summon the energy. 

True, the country had gone through it easier than most — even as most countries around the world suffered through an eternal lockdown, Thais spent much of last year living lives almost like normal. And the government that Prayut leads has reaped the benefits of this success.

After all, pre-pandemic, the government’s legitimacy was of the sort that Max Weber would have scoffed at. The legal machinations leading to its installation had been dubious, its charismatic authority is essentially nil, and the generals’ claims to traditional authority was increasingly wanting. But the government’s ability to contain the pandemic had awarded it with a new source of appreciation: performance legitimacy. 

Thailand became known as one of the world’s most successful countries in fighting the coronavirus. The World Health Organization had called Thailand an example of how with “a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, comprehensive approach, this virus can be contained – even without a vaccine.”

The Lowy Institute placed Thailand 4th in its COVID Performance Index. For trusting the public health experts and putting them in charge, the government received envy-inducing accolades of the sort it has seldom enjoyed previously. 

And even as news from the economic front was dire, the government found easy ways to boost its popularity. Prayut became the face of wildly popular schemes like Khon La Krueng, in which the government agreed to pay half the price of participating products. Nothing, after all, beats putting money right into the pockets of the people. A gruff general became the country’s foremost populist. 

Alas, that sense of performance legitimacy ended up breeding a dangerous complacency.

Rows of beds for incoming Covid-19 coronavirus patients are seen at a new field hospital in a sports stadium on the outskirts of Bangkok on April 18, 2021. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

No sense of urgency

The third wave of coronavirus threatens to undo all the government achieved over the past year. The fact that a minister immediately tested positive was a scandal, but for this battered government, imminently survivable. But both its public health and economic record going down the drain? That is a open question.

For one, a government that spent the past year prioritizing public health reached a point where it could no longer ignore the economy. But in its quest to balance the two, it may accidentally ruin both. Songkran was supposed to be a period of economic revitalization. Yet as the virus surged, the government allowed tourism and travel to continue even as a patchwork of confusing local restrictions emerged. This likely leads to the worst of all worlds, reducing the economic benefits while simultaneously allowing Bangkokians to seed the disease throughout the country.

The situation is increasingly dire. As the country exceeds over a thousand cases a day and even field hospitals filling up, the public health system looks increasingly overwhelmed. After much dither and delay, the government has announced new restrictions, lighter than last year’s lockdown but still likely to devastate many small businesses that barely weathered through last year’s shutdown. 

 As it turns out, a “whatever happens, happens” approach to policymaking may not have been an excellent idea. 

A health worker prepares to administer the Covid-19 coronavirus CoronaVac vaccine, developed by China’s Sinovac firm, at a makeshift clinic at Saeng Thip sports ground in Bangkok on April 7, 2021. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

What vaccine strategy?

To make matters worse, there is also no end yet in sight, for the government had both failed to settle on an effective vaccine strategy and to communicate it effectively to the public. True, Thailand is not lagging as far behind regionally as it is sometimes claimed, as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan also struggle to get its hands on the shots needed. The vaccination pace will likely pick up as Siam Bioscience’s factories come online. But it is undeniable that Thailand is underperforming and its vaccine strategy is still marred by questions. 

When coronavirus was virtually non-existent, moving slowly on vaccine procurement had not seemed so illogical, and indeed was a way to safeguard vaccine safety. But now, as millions of doses have been administered around the globe, we know far better which vaccines are effective and what the potential side effects are. 

We now know, for example, that the mRNA vaccines are remarkably good and safe — and new evidence even show they do not have to be stored at the low temperatures we originally thought. Yet Thailand has still placed no orders for doses from, say, Pfizer. Why? Fair-minded people will know that with demand far outstripping supply, any late order at this stage will not yet arrive. But fair-minded people will also demand an answer for why no order at all has been placed. 

What we have, therefore, is a massive mess of the sort that no amount of Khon La Krueng can save the government.

But let’s leave the government’s ratings aside. This government’s success in combating this third wave will be Thailand’s success, and it will save lives and livelihoods. There is still time for the country to reverse this situation. Whatever disaster we can avoid must be avoided. 

It is heartening, for one, that the government has finally introduced more restrictions. Countries around the world have shown that they are badly needed to control the more transmissible UK variant, which is driving our current surge. These measures are better late than never. Yet if the situation does not get better, the government needs to continue taking further action. This latest outbreak — what some have termed ‘affluenza’ — has shown, after all, that even those who lecture others about personal responsibility have failed to practice what they preach. 

Further restrictions will undoubtedly damage the economy, but they will have been brought about in part by the government’s unwillingness to impose less severe restrictions earlier that could have stemmed the tide. Will they be pricey? Yes, but delayed action will be even pricier.  And, of course, the government must release sufficient compensation to ensure that small businesses will survive and individuals will still be able to put food on the table. (The government still hasn’t spent all its borrowed funds from last year — what better purpose is there for this money than this?) 

Yet combating this third wave is only one side of the equation. Even if COVID-19 is eliminated within the country, the borders are not airtight — inevitably, another wave wlil flare up. To end the pandemic once and for all, the government must also urgently improve its vaccine distribution.

That means diversifying its vaccine sources and placing more orders. While domestic manufacturing ensures a level of vaccine security, which is important now that export barriers are going up, but it is not sufficient for a fast rollout. This is one thing that no amount of individual responsibility can help achieve, and where government must help. 

Even as private hospitals are now permitted to import alternative vaccines, the government must continue to lead these efforts or they will be doomed to failure. Doses may be expensive now, but it is not too expensive when valued against the health of both the people and the economy. 

The government must also improve its vaccine distribution. With doses administered as low as a little over 700 on some days, Thailand’s vaccination pace has simply not been fast enough. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan managed to vaccinate 93% of its adults in sixteen days. This Southeast Asian kingdom will find the task much harder given the difference in population, but it shows that eye-watering efficiency is achievable if the government has the will. 

As the WHO had noted, Thailand’s success in combating the first wave had been down to a whole of government, whole of society approach. To find a path towards the end of the pandemic, we must repeat the feat.

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