How Thai government’s management of COVID crisis may land it in hot soup
Government critics and opposition politicians are campaigning for people impacted by COVID-19 and the associated restrictions to sue the state for compensation over the damage caused.
They say the government, particularly Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, should be held responsible for the worsening epidemic and Thailand’s shortage of “quality” vaccines for mass inoculation.
Prayut and his government are being blamed for the ongoing outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant, which saw daily cases top 9,000 and the daily death toll surpass 90 for the first time last week.
The opposition Pheu Thai Party, the anti-government Progressive Movement and its Move Forward Party, and the newly-established Thai Sang Thai Party are now encouraging citizens and business owners hit by government COVID-19 restrictions to seek damages.
Progressive Movement secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul suggested that both individual complaints and class-action lawsuits be filed with courts.
Thai Sang Thai, which has drawn many politicians from Pheu Thai including its chairperson Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, has launched an online signature campaign to “sue the murderous government”. The campaign has so far gathered more than 385,000 supporters, according to its Facebook page.
Sudarat’s party, established in March, is campaigning for criminal action to be taken against the entire Cabinet, which it accuses of malfeasance. The party says the government continues to buy millions of doses of Sinovac vaccine despite its lack of efficacy against the Delta variant when compared to mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.
Since April, more than 600 medical workers who received two doses of Sinovac have been infected with COVID-19, according to the Public Health Ministry.
Government supporters have hit back at the opposition’s campaign, slamming it as politically motivated.
Seksakol Atthawong, assistant minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, rejected the “murderous government” label. He denied the Prayut administration was unfairly favouring any vaccine, adding that Thailand would receive the first batch of 20 million Pfizer vaccine doses in the fourth quarter amid high global demand.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said “it may be difficult” to press criminal charges against the government, as it is protected by the emergency decree imposed to control the virus crisis.
In order to boost public confidence in Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul took the first jab in Thailand on February 28. The Chinese vaccine has since become the country’s main choice, despite growing doubts about its efficacy that have placed the government under scrutiny.
Civil action feasible
However, civil lawsuits were possible despite the emergency decree, he said last week, adding that authorities could be sued for damages by people affected by perceived government mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation.
“There have been cases of authorities being sued under the emergency decree. The plaintiffs sometimes won and were awarded compensation,” said Wissanu, who is responsible for the government’s legal affairs.
Some legal experts have confirmed that citizens have the right to sue the government. Thammasat University law lecturer Assoc Prof Arnon Mamout said the Constitution encourages legal action against the government for negligence. He said a guilty verdict could lead to a criminal offense of malfeasance.
When the pandemic hit the world early last year, Thailand managed to contain local outbreaks with restrictive measures, though the economy was battered badly. However, COVID-19 cases jumped after the government opted not to ban interprovincial travel during the long Songkran holiday last April.
Thailand has recorded more than 300,000 cases and over 2,500 deaths, with over 90 percent occurring after Songkran. Mass vaccination began in early June and has so far administered about 12 million doses of Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccine.
In May, weeks before the opposition politicians’ campaign was launched, the family of a COVID-19 victim filed a lawsuit against Prayut and relevant authorities, seeking Bt4.5 million in damages.
The family of Kunlasub Wattnaphon, a famous Thai e-sports pioneer and player, accused Gen Prayut, the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration and the Prime Minister’s Office of dereliction of duty leading to his death on April 23. In June, the Administrative Court accepted the case for trial.
COVID-related lawsuits have also been filed against governments and authorities in other countries – including Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom – for the deaths of patients, masking laws and lockdown measures, among others.
Meanwhile, this is not the first time Thai authorities have been sued over their crisis management.
In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government over its handling of the flood crisis, which affected 12.8 million people and caused an estimated Bt1.4 trillion in damages.
However, in 2014 the Administrative Court rejected the plaintiffs’ accusation of negligence on grounds that Yingluck’s government took necessary measures to prevent flooding.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk