11 July 2024

The answer will depend primarily on the COVID-19 numbers at Thailand’s popular island resort. But how the Prayut administration will look coming out of a potential Phuket nightmare will also have to do with competing political narratives, which are getting hotter and hotter on social media.

A “car mob” was organized a few days ago by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s opponents with an aim to portray the “Sandbox” agenda for Phuket as one of his biggest COVID-19 mistakes, adding to the vaccine management. The brief protest was not big enough to catch national attention and it upset local businesses that virtually involve all residents on the world-renowned island. Yet it became clear that Prayut’s enemies have been closely watching Phuket and will pounce at any major slip.

When things start to look bad for Phuket, the opponents’ narrative of “blinded and poorly-prepared policy which therefore is disastrous” will come up against the government’s argument that any protest gathering could “make things worse” or twist the knife in Thailand’s wound, and that helping struggling local economies was always what critics of the government always called for. The Prayut administration’s narrative can be effective to a certain extent, but a Phuket collapse will unlikely benefit the prime minister.

Phuket typifies key differences between the current coronavirus outbreak and the “Spanish Flu” pandemic. When the “Spanish Flu” first struck, the planet was in the first World War, during which tourism was non-existent. Obviously, media censorships carried out for military reasons deterred prevention efforts then. Also, there was no social media to spread quick and useful information. Frequent and large-scale movements of troops and ordinary citizens helped inflame one of the worst pandemics human beings have ever known.

Tourism is what the coronavirus relies on, among other things. But unlike wartime, control is easier. This can explain why the Spanish Flu infected some 500 million people and killed a big percentage of them over a two-year period, making it more devastating than COVID-19. (Spanish Flu’s death tolls understandably varied due to troublesome record keepings at the time, some cover-ups as well as possible mix-ups in fatality causes. Estimates range from 20 million and 50 million, whereas some put the death toll at as high as 100 million.)

Phuket ‘sandbox’ continues despite more closures amid surge in COVID-19 cases

The Phuket “sandbox” scheme, in which fully vaccinated COVID-19 negative foreign tourists are allowed into the country through the island, without quarantine, as an initial step in the country’s reopening to international arrivals, will continue, despite the announcement of closures of more venues in response to rising coronavirus infections on the island and in many other parts of the country.

Tourism restrictions now and necessary troop movements as well as soldiers’ crammed activities then, some experts believe, are one of the key reasons why the Spanish Flu’s infection and death numbers make COVID-19 look pale. After over a year and a half, the coronavirus has infected fewer than 200 million people and killed just over 4.1 million.

But despite the Spanish Flu looking far deadlier and scarier, many things else have to be taken into account. Human beings are not at war this time, which means they are more educated and better prepared. Less media censorship and social media led to quicker and better responses. Vaccines were developed at a breakneck speed.

All these mean tourism and vaccination “mismanagement” can subject any government to harsh criticism. Fully vaccinated tourists or residents do not guarantee foolproof safety. In fact, the trust given to inoculated people may have made many overlook what they carry on their backs or on their hands.

Prayut, therefore, is on a tightrope while his enemies apparently have nothing to lose. If all else fails, Prayut can pin his hope on the fact that the coronavirus has sprung too many surprises to be considered to be anyone’s ever-lasting helper.

Who will politically win at the end? It’s probably too early to make any conclusion.

By Tulsathit Taptim