Virus deadly for what is seen as weak leadership
An outcry over the Prayut government’s failure to combat the new coronavirus pandemic has grown into widespread calls for the government to quit.
Critics say the government’s mishandling of the outbreak could be the last straw for a public whose patience is running out with those in charge of the country.
The hashtag #OurLeaderIsStupidWe’reAllGoingtoDie began trending in early March, before being replaced by #IfLeaderDiesWeWillAllSurvive as of Monday.
On Monday evening, Thais desperate for strong leadership from their government sat down to watch Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s first televised speech on the virus crisis. Soon after the speech, the #PrayutGetOut hashtag was top trending in Twitter, a measure of deepening public dismay.
The government on Monday announced a series of measures aimed at containing the spread of the deadly coronavirus, including a ban on mass gatherings and postponement of the Songkran holiday.
On Tuesday, all entertainment and sports venues in and around Bangkok – including pubs, nightclubs, cinemas and massage parlours – were ordered to close for two weeks.
However, the measures did not satisfy public demands.
The widespread disappointment with decisions taken by Prayut and his government reflect Thais’ plummeting confidence in their leaders, critics say. Panic is infecting society because people feel the government has yet to successfully control the outbreak.
During the PM’s televised address, social media was flooded with comments criticising the government for failing to announce a Stage 3 outbreak or lockdown, measures taken by countries like Italy and more recently Thailand’s neighbour Malaysia, which has the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia.
High-profile doctors and medical experts advise that Thailand will not be able to avoid entering Stage 3 (“critical”), so stricter measures are needed now.
Stage 3 is defined as an epidemic that is “rapidly spreading with considerable patient numbers in many communities”. During Stage 3 – the highest-level outbreak – state and private hospitals must identify all patients with severe Covid-19 infections and isolate them for treatment to cut the rate of transmission.
Thiravat Hemachudha, a professor of neurology at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, has repeatedly called on the government to impose a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the virus.
“It is necessary to impose a lockdown in the country lasting 14 to 21 days,” he posted on Facebook in response to the government’s latest measures to curb the contagion.
The government’s postponement of Songkran is not enough to halt the outbreak as other activities were continuing, he added.
In comparison, Buri Ram and Uthai Thani have earned public praise for becoming the first two provinces in the country to impose a partial lockdown on their governors’ orders.
Thailand has been battling the epidemic since January and is currently at Stage 2, which means it is capable of containing the virus, unlike the situation in several other countries where the Covid-19 contagion is more widespread.
As of March 18, Thailand recorded 212 confirmed cases of the deadly virus and one death. That followed three consecutive days when 30 or more new cases were discovered.
‘Too late’ for Prayut
Effective management of the crisis takes good leadership, says Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
To successfully handle any crisis, a leader needs to win the confidence and trust of citizens. But widespread doubts about Thailand’s current leader, including among those who supported him before he became premier, is deepening after an aide of one of his ministers was accused of involvement in the hoarding of face masks, the academic says.
Public confidence has also dropped due to instances of misinformation from the government, he adds. For instance, the authorities insisted there was no shortage of face masks at a time when none could be found in shops.
“A leader needs to have vision and to think outside of the box, but military officers can’t do this. They tend to follow commands, like the Thai bureaucratic system. So, I think it may now be too late or beyond the point where the PM can restore faith [in his leadership],” he says.
However, Yuthaporn suggests that though the government believes Thailand has yet to reach Stage 3, it should announce now what measures it plans for that scenario, so as to provide a clear picture of the path ahead and raise public confidence.
Phumtham Vejjayachai, former secretary-general of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, complains that the Prayut government is mishandling the virus crisis, lacks integrated planning, while ministries tasked with dealing with the situation are busy squabbling with one another.
This, he says, is the beginning of a catastrophe for Thais and Thailand.
“Covid-19 has exhausted the public’s patience with this government. If the government is incompetent, it should quit and pave the way for Thais to decide their own future,” Phumtham says.
Even hardcore Prayut fans like famed songwriter Nitipong “Dee” Honark are now criticising him for his indecisiveness.
“I love ‘Lung’ [‘Uncle’ Prayut] but if Lung is too exhausted to handle things, Lung should resign,” Nitipong posted on Facebook after the PM’s televised address.
By Jintana Panyaarvudh