April 14, 2021

Asia

THAILAND: Unaccustomed population struggles with rising case numbers

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • Thailand is facing its worst increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Public apprehension is noticeably higher compared to the December-February spike.
  • A continued worsening through the last week of April could result in the reimposition of movement and business restrictions and hamper the country’s reopening to foreign visitors.

The government reported 1,335 new Covid-19 cases on 14 April, the country’s highest single-day tally since the start of the pandemic. In both absolute and relative terms, Thailand’s numbers are a fraction of the worst seen in other countries and within the region. The 14 April count equals 19 cases per million, while the Philippines only last week had around 110 cases per million. Since the start of the pandemic, among Southeast Asia’s emerging markets, Malaysia posted the highest number of 146 cases per million in early February.

However, the numbers are still unnerving for a population more accustomed to seeing practically zero local transmission. Thailand successfully controlled the virus through almost all of last year, with March and April 2020 peaking at around 2 cases per million. The country’s first relatively serious outbreak was in December, in Samut Sakhon province south of Bangkok, with cases reaching around 12 per million. But aggressive contact tracing and localized restrictions were enough to bring cases down by mid-February.

The current outbreak started in late March and is generating more worry than the one that originated in Samut Sakhon. Most of the new cases are being discovered in Bangkok, the capital, and Chiang Mai, the largest city in the north and a major tourism hub. Second, the cases are traced to an initial outbreak in the Thonglor entertainment district in western Bangkok. The venues where the outbreaks are thought to have originated are popular with the city’s elites and expats, in contrast to Samut Sakhon, which was mainly in the migrant Myanmar community. The Thonglor infections spreading quickly outwards to Chiang Mai, more than 600 kilometers north, as well as the popular seaside resort Hua Hin facing the Gulf of Thailand. The speculation is that a more contagious variant was transmitted by workers illegally trafficked from Cambodia, which started seeing cases go up in February.

The government’s initial reaction was to order the closure of nighttime entertainment venues in Bangkok and 41 other provinces until 23 April. Starting tomorrow malls will close one to two hours earlier. But local governments are also starting to implement a patchwork of inter-provincial regulations that Thais says are confusing. Some provinces only require travelers from Bangkok to report to local health authorities and to be tested. Many more are requiring visitors from specific districts in Bangkok to quarantine for 14 days. Land border controls are also likely to be tightened.

The key period will be the next two weeks, especially since Thailand is now celebrating Songkran until the 16th, the traditional New Year’s holiday that is the country’s most festive celebration and which is often accompanied by large-scale domestic movement by tourists and returning residents. Events are being tamped down across the country, but some domestic travel is still taking place, and health authorities fear that this could facilitate the virus’s spread.

If the current numbers continue to rise into the fourth week of April, more serious social and business restrictions may be reintroduced, similar to those implemented in March last year. This could delay Thailand’s efforts to reopen some inbound travel. Since 1 April, fully vaccinated foreign tourists headed for Phuket are required to quarantine for only seven days. Still, the possibility of increasing restrictions could slow the opening of tourism-oriented establishments and reduce visitor enthusiasm for the program.

The government is also vulnerable to increased domestic criticisms because vaccinations have been proceeding slowly, apparently hampered by the lack of supply. So far only, 580,000 doses have been administered, in a country of almost 70 million. Thailand has received 2mn doses of Sinovac but expects the bulk of its supply to be provided by Siam Biosciences Ltd., the local licensee of AstraZeneca starting in May or June. If public pressure builds, Thailand may consider negotiating new agreements with additional suppliers or allow the private sector, including large firms and hospitals, to import for their employees and clients.

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