11 July 2024

As the new wave of COVID-19 exploded in Samut Sakhon, the governor leading the fightback always managed to keep a smile on his face, radiating much-needed confidence to his team and local residents.

But one month after contracting the virus himself, a barely conscious Verasak Vichitsangsri had tears in his eyes when his doctor told him that a field hospital in his province was expanding to accommodate more than 1,500 COVID-19 patients, most of them migrant workers.

Verasak’s response, shared in a social-media post by Dr Nitipat Jiarakul, suggests the governor puts people first even as he fights for his life in Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital.

Impressive profile

Born in 1961, Verasak earned a BA degree from Burapha University at age 22 and began his career as a community-development official in Suphan Buri.

Climbing the civil service career ladder, he found time to complete a political science degree from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in 1991 followed by a master’s in the same subject from Ramkhamhaeng University in 1998.

By 2001, he had risen to become chief of Suphan Buri’s Bang Pla Ma district, but continued his education with a diploma from the National Defence College in 2015. The following year, he was appointed governor of Phichit province.

His long years of dedicated service were recognised with several awards, among them a commendation for discipline, sufficiency, honesty and volunteerism from the Centre for Morality in 2019.

Prayers for the governor

This week, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul called on people to pray for Verasak. “Please wish him a speedy recovery,” said Anutin, who is also deputy PM, in response to reports that Verasak was fighting for his life.

But people had been crossing their fingers long before Anutin made the plea for Verasak, who spent his 59th birthday on Christmas Day working tirelessly to contain the new COVID-19 surge in his province.

Public confidence in the governor was underlined when people jumped to his defence after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha claimed Verasak was partly to blame for the outbreak.

Before testing positive

Verasak has served as governor of Samut Sakhon – dubbed Little Myanmar for its many immigrant workers – since 2019. When COVID-19 first emerged in Thailand early last year, he led successful efforts to keep virus cases low in his province. However, that all changed when the contagion reared its head again late last year.

On December 19, Verasak went on TV to say that more than 500 cases had been confirmed in Samut Sakhon – marking the start of the new wave in Thailand.

Three days later, Prayut blamed Verasak for lax measures that allowed illegal migrants to sneak into his province from virus-ravaged Myanmar. Rumours were rife that migrants smuggled across the border to work in the seafood industry had evaded the mandatory 14-day quarantine and spread the virus in Samut Sakhon.

Verasak’s supporters, however, say the problem is far too big to blame on him alone. They also point to his reputation as one of the most dedicated governors in the country and his popularity among Samut Sakhon residents.

Critical condition

Verasak tested positive for COVID-19 on December 28 and was rushed to Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok for treatment. He managed to fight off the virus but at the cost of lung damage that has left him relying on a ventilator to breathe. He remains under constant watch in hospital.

Prof Dr Prasit Watanapa, dean of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, confirmed that Verasak has undergone a tracheotomy and is not well enough to receive visits, even from his family.

He is currently under critical care in the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, but “we may transfer him to an ICU soon, so his family can visit him”, Prasit said on Wednesday.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk