Southern virus spread fueled by distrust of government security apparatus, misinformation

As the South of Thailand becomes the new epicenter for the Covid-19 pandemic, many questions are being posed as to why the region continues to see the number of cases climb whereas other regions have seen case numbers level off or decline altogether.

A low level of trust with the government’s security apparatus and widespread misinformation about side effects of the vaccine are the main reasons why many people in the deep south are not getting vaccinated, local experts told Thai Enquirer.

The lack of public involvement in the drafting of Covid prevention measures and the setting up of the Southern Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration or “Frontline CCSA” is another concern for local residents, according to the experts.

“The low uptake is also connected to a security issue and I am not only talking about Covid vaccine, but it is also about other vaccines as well,” said Senator Zakee Pitakumpol, deputy secretary to Sheikhul Islam.

The government has said in previous weeks that one of the reasons why there is a continuous surge of Covid cases in Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat while cases in other provinces is dropping is because some people in the region are refusing to be vaccinated due to disinformation and personal or religious beliefs.

But this is not the whole picture.

It is undeniable, however, that Covid numbers in the south have grown exponentially. The four southern provinces now account for about 25 per cent of daily reported cases nationwide. The growth is significant considering that the south only took up around a 15 per cent share around the beginning of October.

Low Rate of Vaccination

Zakee does not deny that the increasing number of Covid cases is because some people are refusing to take the available vaccines.

But he said that is nothing new since data from the provincial communicable disease committees in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat shows that the level of any vaccine uptake in this region is lower than other parts of the country.

The three provinces are at the epicenter of a long running separatist insurgency that reignited in the early 2000s and has claimed thousands of lives.

“If you look at it district by district, you will see that the map of districts where the uptake is low will coincide with the map of districts that have been designated as conflict zones by the military,” he said.

This is because of the low level of trust in the military agencies that are running the vaccination drive.

He said only 30 per cent of the population in Pattani have received the first dose of Covid vaccine so far.

“Many doctors that I have talked to this week said that there are vaccines but they do not know who to give it to which is very alarming,” he said.

Zakee said some of the conspiracy theories that are being spread against the Covid vaccines include rumors that they are not clean, that they are made by Jewish movements that are seeking to control Muslims, and that vaccination would make their children physically or intellectually inferior.

“These age-old conspiracy theories coupled with the mentality that even if you have been fully vaccinated you can still be infected by Covid is contributing to the low number of vaccinations,” he said.

Vaccine choice

According to Zakee, another major reason that vaccination rates remain low is because of the misinformation about the effectiveness of Sinovac which until recently had been the government’s main jabs around the country.

Breakthrough cases and low level of preventions have led people to skip or bypass the Sinovac doses altogether.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Monday that the government has sent 520,000 Pfizer doses to the four southernmost provinces and they are sending another 480,000 doses to support the efforts to prevent the spread of the virus in the region.

Zakee said he was not sure whether more Pfizer would significantly improve trust in the government’s vaccine plan.

Ekkarin Tuansiri, a lecturer at the Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Political Science, told Thai Enquirer that Pfizer would increase the number of vaccinations in young people who do not want to be vaccinated by Sinovac.

“It should help since some people only want to be vaccinated by a vaccine that has proven to be more effective,” he said.  

Dr Muhammad Fahmee Talib from the Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Nursing told Thai Enquirer that according to a university study, only 40 per cent of the population in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are willing to be vaccinated.

The remaining 50 per cent are hesitant and 10 per cent of those polled say they will not take the vaccine regardless.

Recommendations

Zakee said that to reverse this course, local agencies such as provincial Islamic committees and local community leaders such as religious leaders have to have more involvement in the vaccination drive rather than a straight government mandate.

Both Zakee and Ekkarin suggested that the government should avoid controversial measures that could lead to unrest such as the attempt to ban unvaccinated people from entering mosques in Yala.

“Mosques and religious ceremonies are not part of major clusters and local people are already being very careful, so [such a move] will definitely be met with resistant from the locals,” he said.

“They should consult with local religious leaders before coming out with new measures that will affect religious practices as well,” he said.

Ekkarin added that the government should allow more public involvement from civil society within the newly set up Frontline CCSA as it is currently dominated by bureaucrats and security officials.

Ekkarin points out that people like General Natthapol Nakpanich is heading the vaccination efforts. But mistrust between locals and people like Nattapol, who oversaw security operations in the area against the insurgency, remains high.

“They like to turn health issues into security issues,” he said. “People who carried guns should be separated from officials who are carrying syringes.”

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