Since the start of the third wave, the government has been stuck in a difficult, damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. Impose too many restrictions and long-suffering small businesses may finally topple. Impose too few, however, and infections would continue with no end in sight.
Instead of the eradication strategy that the government successfully accomplished last year, this time the government has opted for a middling approach and eventually started removing restrictions even before a consistent improvement in case numbers could be detected. The result was a continued rise in infections which has put the health system under severe strain and now the re-imposition of a ban on dining inside.
This oscillation between closing and opening feels disorienting and does neither public health nor the economy much good. Even while it is clear that there is not much appetite at the highest levels of power to return to last year’s eradication strategy, more can still be done to combat the current situation.
1. More restrictions are necessary.
Logical deduction would already show that the new restrictions that the government have imposed in Bangkok and other impacted provinces are unlikely to be sufficient in bringing case numbers down dramatically. Even before dining in was re-permitted, infections had not meaningfully come down. Returning to the same restrictions may slow the spread somewhat, but the jury is certainly out on whether or not it can actually change the trajectory of the pandemic.
Further restrictions, more akin to what we saw last year, would likely do more to stem the tide. We are worried about the Delta variant and its increased transmissibility, but the fact remains that even a highly transmissible virus cannot spread if we reduce the opportunity there is for transmitting at all. Some of these restrictions don’t have to be draconian. Simple things like mandating more working from home (I certainly know of internships taking place on site, for instance, the necessity of which I believe is questionable in the face of the greater public health imperative) could be helpful.
A circuit breaker would not be universally popular, of course; the same applies for increased restrictions of any kind. But given the strains that the public health system is now going under — Bangkok, for one, is running out of hospital beds — the question that must be asked is whether there is a feasible alternative that doesn’t cost even more lives.
2. But further restrictions must be paired with compensation.
Any argument for further restrictions must be paired with an argument for greater compensation. We must save lives, but we must also protect livelihoods. Perhaps some businesses have survived, are surviving, and will continue to survive these turbulent times — but others are teetering on the edge or have already gone under. The government needs to do all it can to save them.
The government plans to borrow 500 billion baht more after almost exhausting the one trillion baht loan it took last year. According to the government’s spending plans, 300 billion baht will be aimed at supporting individuals and businesses affected by the pandemic. This may worry fiscal hawks, but if there is a time where spending is needed, it is now. And it appears to me that protecting the jobs of Thais and making sure businesses survive the next few months would be an excellent way to use this spending. What the government must ensure is that the funds are distributed effectively and efficiently, targeted where it is needed, and with minimal waste.
There are also other measures that the government can take to alleviate pressure on small businesses. For example, exempting certain businesses particularly affected by government orders, such as restaurants, from certain taxes due from the past fiscal year may help.
3. Keep outdoor venues, such as public parks, open.
Something that has been puzzling throughout the third wave is the fact that some outdoor venues, such as parks, were closed down, while indoor venues such as shopping malls were allowed to remain open. The phrase “following the science” is no longer fashionable — which piece of science? — but we do have an abundance of evidence now that transmission is most likely in indoor spaces, while outdoor spaces are much safer. And as such, outdoor spaces such as public parks should remain open to the public.
This is a point that is worth emphasizing because of the importance of outdoor spaces for mental health. Lockdowns can exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues and, as many of us doubtlessly have felt, impose a heavy toll on our relationships, our productivity and our general sense of well-being. Green spaces, already a rarity in this concrete jungle, are a means to make lockdown more bearable. Protecting our physical health may come at the cost of our mental health, but there are ways to alleviate this issue. This is one of them.
It’s now been around a year and a half since the coronavirus pandemic started. We know far more about this virus and how it spreads via aerosols. With common sense measures, such as asking that masks be worn even in outdoor spaces, people can protect both themselves and their mental health.
4. Reopening is a worthy goal. But it has to be responsibly accomplished.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently announced the goal of fully reopening Thailand within 120 days. It was an ambitious goal, to say the least, and it is hardly surprising that many remain skeptical that the government will be able to follow through. I count myself in the skeptical camp, but I am also certainly not unsupportive of trying to move in that direction. Thailand needs a goal to work towards, and an attempt at reopening can restore hope and confidence to a battered tourism industry. Yet much work still has to be done in order to make sure that safely reopening in October is not simply a pipe dream.
For one, Thailand’s vaccination rate right now still leaves something to be desired. At the time of writing nine million doses have been administered so far, of which a little under six and a half million are first doses. The government plans to at least partially vaccinate 50 million people by October, which would still require the government to inoculate 44 million more people.
These statistics raise a number of questions. Firstly, giving 44 million more people their first doses by October would require a vaccine supply of over 14 million doses each month for first jabs alone. It is largely a question of supply — Thailand’s medical personnel are clearly capable of vaccinating massive numbers of people when doses are in abundance —Can the government deliver on that, especially if deals with manufacturers such as Pfizer do not bear fruit until later in the year?
Secondly, the strategy of having the majority of the population only partially inoculated at reopening is one that brings risks. I have written before about how, absent an alternative, it is better to take Sinovac than to wait. But with the Delta variant, those inoculated with Sinovac may even need a third dose. In this case, would a population that is only partially vaccinated at reopening not be dangerously susceptible to this variant?
At this point, it is difficult to lay out a credible path towards quickly securing more vaccination doses. A belated reopening will likely be better than a premature reopening, if the latter cannot be achieved responsibly. After all, a premature reopening that is followed by a re-shuttering due to increased infections would be economically devastating. We have already seen this play out in the past few months — and we would do well to heed these lessons.