Opinion: The ‘Phuket Sandbox’ must be carefully managed – and studied – or dire consequences will follow

In three days time, Thailand is set to open the “Phuket Sandbox” and allow tourists from low to medium risk countries to enter the island and enjoy its freedom without the need to quarantine.

The plan has excited a tourism industry has stagnated and suffered since the start of the global pandemic.

The decline of the tourism sector has sparked a recession in the country and points to Thailand’s reliance on the tourism industry which as of 2019 accounted for close to 15% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Although calls have been made to open the economy since late last year the government of General Prayut Chan-ocha seemed unwilling to risk its hard-fought gains on the Covid-19 front and do so.

How six months changes everything. Since December, when the calls crescendoed for the country’s reopening, Thailand has seen Covid-19 infections rise dramatically fueled by irresponsible behavior and inept government policies.

It is in this environment that the government of Prayut is set to introduce a new variable.

In fact, the government seems hell bent on opening the ‘sandbox’ even though most of the countries around the world are in the process of reassessing their own cautious re-openings because of a new Covid-19 variant.

The so-called ‘Delta’ variant, which spreads at a faster rate and results in more hospitalizations than previous variants is fast becoming the dominant strain around the world.

To make matters worse the vaccine that Thailand has been using as one of its primary inoculators – SinoVac – seems ineffective against both the Delta Variant and a previous strain known as Beta.

SinoVac was the main vaccine used by the government in Phuket. According to government statistics, nearly 50% of the 547,584 people residing in Phuket were administered SinoVac jabs.

We only need to look at countries around the region and the world to see what a reliance on SinoVac gets you in the face of the arriving Delta variant. Countries such as the Seychelles, Chile, and Indonesia are facing rising infection numbers even as though they widely used the vaccine.

This should worry Thai authorities as the July 1 date looms closer and closer.

Thailand does not need another headache. Infection rates, even without the Phuket reopening, has been at an all time high. In June, the rate of infection has been around 3,200 new cases each day and 32 deaths. This compares around 3,035 new cases and 27 deaths in May.

Failed Vaccination Drive 

The fact that barely 50% of Phuket’s ‘resident’ population is vaccinated is in itself a worry. There are plenty of people who work in Phuket who do not live in the city proper, many of whom commute to work on the island. How will authorities account for that?

Given that the magic number cited by officials of reaching herd immunity is around 70% and the likely number of people vaccinated and working in Phuket to be below 50%, we are heading towards a scenario where herd immunity is not even close by the time the island reopens.

Even before the sandbox begins, Phuket has seen new Covid-19 cases being reported each day. As per data released by the government, Phuket saw 693 cases from April 1 until June 20 and from June 23 to 27 it has recorded about 3 cases per day.

If the government is to be believed and the sandbox will shut down if Phuket sees more than 90 cases per week, then this program might be doomed to fail even before it starts.

Learning from China

Lab leak theories aside, China is one country we can look to where the government has been able to control the outbreak very smoothly. People in the financial hub of Shanghai have been going to bars to sip cocktails while other countries around the world face lockdown amid resurgent infection rates.

But even countries such as China are not taking risk as the Delta variant continues to spread.

In the latest move by the Chinese government, the country is reportedly looking at quarantining arriving travelers in special-made facilities in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. These so called ‘special facilities’ are not the typical hotel quarantine that we are familiar with but facilities that are made to deal with the ‘Delta’ variant as the virologists in China feel that hotels are not well equipped to deal with this mutation and any future mutations.

Countries such as Australia, which was starting to open up a ‘travel bubble’ are facing new lockdowns as Sydney saw 110 cases of the ‘Delta’ variant.

And about a quarter of the cases now being discovered in Thailand is of the Delta variant with a bulk of the cases being in Bangkok.

October target for reopening

The move to open the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ is supposed to be a precursor to the planned opening of Thailand by October 14 as per the announcement by the prime minister.

The country’s reopening hinges on the government’s plan to vaccinate at least 50% of its population by that time. However, as of the time of writing, only about 9 million doses have been administered or equivalent to just over 6% of the population.

That means, the government will have to inoculate tens of millions between now and the start of October, a tall order for Prayut and his administration given everything that has come before.

We do not know how the virus will mutate in the next 3-6 months, we don’t know how widespread Delta will be.

Phuket, if the tourists even come given some of the restrictions, will serve as a good experiment to see how bad things can get given some arrivals will likely carry the virus asymptomatically and will spread it to local staff.

If it all goes to hell quickly, the government must cancel its plans for October no matter the consequences. Otherwise we may face the same situation that India did a few months back with devastating pictures of bodies and mass graves.

The only solution to all the government’s headaches is to vaccinate the population with jabs that are proven effective and capable of combating all the variants. The government must stop its reliance on SinoVac no matter who benefits from the jabs.

Nobody wants to see the situation seen in India happen in Thailand with parking lots turned into crematoriums and families devastated. The government must do its utmost to ensure the Phuket sandbox is safe not only for tourists but for the people of Thailand. It must also use the lessons learned in this reopening and apply it for the rest of the country ahead of its plans to reopen in October.

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