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December 23, 2020

Asia

THAILAND: A test for the country’s contact-tracing and testing system

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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An outbreak that apparently started sometime over the last two weeks with migrant workers in a province southeast of Bangkok is threatening to spread to the rest of the country, and causing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to warn of a possible reimposition of movement and business restrictions. The bulk of the cases have been traced to a seafood market in Samut Sakhon, which is 48 kilometers by rail southeast of Bangkok, or 33 kilometers in a straight line. Movement into and out of the province has since been prohibited, a nighttime curfew imposed, and most commercial establishments, schools and public places ordered closed until 3 January.

The next seven days are likely to be important in the government’s determination of whether its system for contact tracing, testing and isolation are sufficient to prevent a widening of domestic transmissions, particularly outside the initial province. Infections traceable to Samut Sakhon have been found in 22 provinces, including Bangkok, but the numbers are still low enough that the government seems encouraged that it can gain control of the situation.

THAILAND: A test for the country’s contact-tracing and testing system 1

As of 22 December, Thailand has reported a total of 5,762 cases since the outbreak began, but that number was only 4,261 on 15 December. The number of new cases in a week’s time has therefore accounted for 26% of Thailand’s total since March. On Wednesday it reported 46 new cases, down significantly from 427 the day before, composed of 39 locally transmitted ones and seven from new arrivals. However, it omitted cases among the migrants in Samut Sakhon. Nonetheless, the low daily number will sustain Bangkok’s hopes that contact tracing and testing can move fast enough to track down those who may have been infected in the rest of the country, especially if the movement restrictions in the province that is at the center of the outbreak work.

Samut Sakhon is a key trading port for shrimp and prawn exports, which account for about 30% of Thailand’s USD6bn in seafood exports. Thai Union Group and Charoen Pokphand Group, the two major seafood processors, said their operations are unaffected. Because of the industry’s processing requirements, it imports low-cost labor from Myanmar and most of the newly discovered cases have come from these migrant worker communities. There are about 230,000 documented migrants in the province, but a large number are also likely in the country illegally.

On a per capita and absolute basis, the number of new cases remains low compared to both global and regional numbers, but Thailand had experienced seven months when domestic transmission had been effectively stopped, even with the regular protest rallies of the past few months — thus, the recent shock when the country posted a surge in the number of confirmed cases in a day. What likely worries the government is Samut Sakhon’s proximity to Bangkok and the fact that it is a popular destination for both wholesale and retail buyers. Several schools in Bangkok have closed down already, once nearby households were found to have traveled to province. This is further compounded by the difficulty of tracking down migrant workers or making their employers liable for their safety. This morning, several workers were left abandoned in the next province of Samut Prakan.

Prayuth did not make a direct threat to reimpose quarantine over a larger portion of Thailand in a statement he made yesterday, but he said that “additional regulations may be appropriate for the evolving situation.”