Whistleblower raises questions about Thai government’s Covid-19 numbers

A recent Facebook post alleging that the government lied about the source of Covid-19 infections is ripping across social media in Thailand.

For days, Prayut Chan-ocha has been resisting calls for shut-down on the basis that Thailand has not yet reached a ‘Stage Three’ covid-19 outbreak, defined as “rapidly spreading with considerable patient numbers at the community level.”

But the Facebook post, allegedly written by one of the now infamous ‘Thonglor 11’ Covid-19 cases, argues otherwise. 

At 10 AM local time, Facebook user ‘Santi G Lawyerlife’ shared his experience contracting Covid-19 as one of Thailand’s first cases, concluding that it is not the virus itself, but the government’s response that is the scariest thing about this pandemic. It has since been shared ten thousand times, with five thousand likes and two and a half thousand comments.

To the main question: were he and his friends drinking and sharing cigarettes with a sick visitor from Hong Kong on February 29, as declared by the Public Health Ministry?

The headline answer: no. It was a case of local to local transmission, in which some Thais did not exhibit symptoms. ‘Santi’ himself had no contact with any Hong Kong national during the late February period in which the partying allegedly took place.

This contradicts the current narrative of the Thai government, which maintains that it is able to trace every current case to its source. More importantly, it contradicts the implicit narrative that the government has tried to highlight – that the cases have come from abroad (the ‘Thonglor 11’ were referred to as the ‘Hong-Kong incident’ by Dr Sukhum Kanchannaphimai, permanent secretary for public health) and beyond entertainment venues and cases from the boxing match, there are few cases being transmitted at home.

The narrative of a “traveler’s Covid-19” inhibited ‘Santi’s own testing experience. As some friends in his group began to report symptoms of fever, they tried to get tested, but were all turned away as they had had no history of travel abroad. They eventually got tested after much insistence, and they all tested positive for Covid-19 – ‘Santi’ had no symptoms at the time. 

“The truth is, of all the people in my group on February 29th , not a single one of us had any contact with any foreigners.”  He also alluded to the possibility many others they came into contact with that evening, who, like him, may show no symptoms but are spreading the disease via local to local transmission.

“The third stage means disease transmission to a second person, third person and so on. Thailand remains at a controllable stage,” Prayut said at a press conference on March 18th.

Yet, ‘Santi’ wrote: “The government does not dare accept the fact that we have already reached stage 3 before our group even got infected – this will be the main cause of the outbreak spreading beyond our control.”

While some Facebook users expressed support and encouraged him not to delete his post, some disputed his analysis of invoking a ‘stage 3’ outbreak, as his case was still clearly traceable to the contact that a friend of friend had had with a Hong Kong person. Many chastised him for having gone out partying at all, with the recently popularized phrase “ปชชงรจตกม” (our population is stupid, we will all die).

Yet, regardless of the veracity – or morality – of ‘Santi’s position, the post invites much-needed skepticism over the government’s numbers.

Thailand has declared 322 cases with its recent update on March 20th. It is worth questioning these numbers and what the Thai government isn’t telling us. If there are, as Santi suggests, multiple locally transmitted cases that are no longer being tracked, what are the potential consequences of not invoking a shutdown? This becomes particularly pertinent as cases begin appearing outside of Bangkok, where public health infrastructure has far less capacity.

This is probably not Thailand’s Dr. Li Wenliang moment, as public anger at the government’s lack of transparency is tempered by anger at fellow citizens’ irresponsibility in a time of crisis. But Covid-19 is a race against time, and the Thai governments reactive, hastily imposed foreign travel requirements speak to a panic that is beyond what they have communicated to the public.

Anger is spreading in the US over a closed-door Coronavirus meeting in which GOP senators were informed of the threat and didn’t tell the public – but sold their stock instead. The phrase being invoked by an angry American public is one familiar to Chinese netizens: “They knew, but they didn’t tell us.”

Given the current breakdown in public trust in Thailand, it is worth asking the question: what do they know that they’re not telling us?

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