From winner to loser: Thailand’s downhill battle with COVID 

Rescue volunteers from the Siam Nonthaburi foundation prepare for the funerals of people who died after contracting the Covid-19 coronavirus at Wat Rat Prakhong Tham Buddhist temple in Nonthaburi on May 5, 2021. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

The ongoing third wave of COVID-19 underlines one thing: Thailand is no longer a champion in managing the contagion, and that has a lot to do with its government.

As of May 6, the number of COVID-19 cases recorded in Thailand since the epidemic began stood at 76,811. Of these, 336 have died and 29,680 remain hospitalized.

However, a closer look at the statistics shows the caseload has exploded this year.

On December 1, 2020, before the second wave of infections, Thailand had recorded just 4,008 COVID-19 cases and 60 deaths. The country was winning international praise for its control of the disease.

However, by March 1 the second wave had infected another 28,868 people, killing 42 of them.

“The government, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, has been inefficient. It has failed in COVID-19 crisis management,” said Dr Rewat Wisutwet, a party-list MP and medical doctor from the opposition Seri Ruam Thai Party.

Rural Doctor Society’s president Dr Supat Hasuwankit added that people’s patience with the government was running out, especially where COVID-19 is concerned.

Songkran a turning point

Taking advice from epidemiologists and medical experts, the government imposed a strict lockdown at the onset of the first wave in 2020. The Songkran festival was cancelled for the first time ever, with people told not to travel back to their home provinces to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading. The measures paid off as Thailand brought the viral transmission under control.

Having closely monitored the epidemic ever since it emerged in China’s Wuhan, Rewat lamented the government’s decision not to impose a lockdown over Songkran when cases surged again last month.

“The government was afraid of banning Songkran holidays and trips. It cited economic reasons for not imposing the ban despite knowing that the third wave was sparked by the more contagious UK variant,” he complained.

That error of judgement by the government had allowed COVID-19 cases and deaths to skyrocket over the past month, he added.

After the Songkran holidays, Thailand plunged into an unprecedented virus crisis. Many died while waiting for tests or admission to hospital.

A medical staff member keeps watch while preparing to vaccinate members of the Klong Toey community, one of the areas with the highest number of positive Covid-19 coronavirus cases in the capital, at a school in Bangkok on May 4, 2021. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Emergence of dangerous clusters

The situation is growing bleaker by the day, as authorities scramble to provide more hospital beds and medicines such as antiviral Favipiravir. More clusters of infections are being detected, especially in the densely-populated Bangkok communities of Klong Toei, Bon Kai and Huai Khwang.

Dr Prasit Watanapa, dean of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, on Thursday admitted that Siriraj – one the country’s largest hospitals – was close to its capacity.

Countries such as India show that when a healthcare system is overwhelmed, the COVID-19 death toll soars quickly.

Meanwhile, public frustration over the sluggish rate of vaccination is growing in Thailand. Only 1.6 million doses of COVID vaccine have been administered to date. Very few Thais have received the two shots necessary for maximum protection against the virus. Many believe that faster vaccine rollout could have prevented the third wave.

It should be noted that Thailand has so far acquired just two brands of vaccine. The country is relying mainly on AstraZeneca vaccine but had received only 117,000 doses as of May 6. Meanwhile, it has imported 3.5 million doses of Sinovac vaccine.

Vaccination problems

Despite the urgency surrounding the vaccine issue, Prayut has only given one update to the public, Rewat said.

On April 16, the PM said his government had made a move for Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s Convidecia and Sinopharm vaccines, India’s Covaxin, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. He hinted that chances of procuring the Sputnik V and US-German Pfizer-BioNTech jabs were high thanks to Thailand’s strong relations with the countries concerned.

“Since that statement, Prayut has given no progress reports to the public. When will those vaccines arrive?” the opposition MP asked.

Rewat also accused the government of trying to control COVID-19 vaccination out of fear it would lose political support if others – possibly the private sector – could do a better job of securing the life-saving jabs for Thais.

“There is no transparency in how the government has handled COVID-19 vaccine issues,” he said, dismissing claims by high-profile figures that vaccine makers were only doing deals with governments during emergency use of their products.

A shot in the arm: foreign residents and their eligibility for a jab

Thailand’s foreign residents are often left scratching their heads at the confusing and sometimes apparently contradictory information on Covid-19 vaccines and their eligibility for a jab While many Thais are talking about their Covid-19 vaccine choices, if indeed there are any, and vaccination schedules, a large number of expats have been left clueless as to whether they have access to vaccines and if so, which, when and how.

The global virus crisis has prompted an acceleration in vaccine development. Although some 1.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, all have been cleared for emergency use only.

Rewat also suspects political interference at the National Vaccine Institute and various other health agencies.

Strangely, Thailand has pulled out of the World Health Organisation’s COVAX global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Supat said he could not see how the government can meet its target to control the COVID-19 situation with vaccines by the end of this year.

“The government’s plan to inoculate 50 million people in Thailand by 2021 will require 100 million doses of vaccine,” Supat said. “Even if the government can get that many doses, how will it administer 416,600 vaccines per day [needed to meet the target] from now on?”

Military men in charge of medical affairs

Rewat said it was strange that after establishing the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the government filled its many posts with military figures. Instead of having epidemiologists work on battling the epidemic, Thailand has military men in charge.

“Some important posts have been handed to doctors, but they seem to care more about advancing their personal interests than telling the public the truth,” Rewat said. “It looks like several doctors have sacrificed their professional freedom while handling COVID-19 situation.”

Rewat also criticised Prayut for not putting to good use the overriding powers granted him by the COVID-19 emergency decree.

“The second wave began because soldiers failed to handle border operations and allowed [infected] illegal migrant workers to sneak into the country,” he said. “The third wave then emerged from a pub and a minister was infected.”

Rewat was referring to Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who has denied accusations that he contracted COVID-19 in a Bangkok nightclub.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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