Fighting Covid-19 in Thailand: The Need to Arm the Real Combatants

The Prayut government has mishandled the Covid-19 crisis. The battle against the deadly virus should best be left to the frontline combatants in the healthcare sector

A Thai family under home quarantine in Nong Chik district, in Thailand’s southern province of Pattani. (Photo: Tuwaedaniya Meringing, AFP)

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

26 March 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic hitting Thailand has caught the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on its back foot. The government has had to improvise as the number of confirmed cases in the country has risen dramatically. Since the coronavirus hit the kingdom in early March, the number of infections has soared, reaching 1,045 cases as of 26 March. The figure looks likely rise further. Confusion, misinformation and disarray have ruled the day since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan earlier this year.

The government, which has a solid knowledge of security matters, knows full well that the outbreak of disease is a non-traditional security threat. Such threats can harm people, derail the economy and even affect political stability. Thailand’s four-year security policy and plan was released in November 2019. The documents address key non-traditional threats such as smuggling, human trafficking and transnational crime. But they devoted only a short section to new diseases in its discussion of new security threats. There was little detail as to how to handle such diseases. The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that Thailand badly needs to revise its policies.

Thailand has had the opportunity to face up to non-traditional threats, but it has consistently allocated budgetary and other resources to more traditional security matters. The government allocated 124.4 billion baht to the Defence Ministry but only 26.7 billion baht to the Ministry of Public Health in the 2020 fiscal year. The Prime Minister has 518 billion baht under his discretion, of which 96 billion baht is reserved for emergencies such as disease outbreaks. But financial firepower alone is not the only answer to such security threats.

Military facilities and hardware are helpful in addressing disease outbreaks, but only to an extent. Initially, reception facilities at the Sattahip naval base were able to accommodate the 138 Thais who were evacuated from Wuhan for their 14-day quarantines, but they proved inadequate for holding the thousands of Thai workers who returned from South Korea. The facilities were shut down when the government changed its plans and decided to send returnees from risky areas into self-quarantine. Poor intelligence meant, however, that it failed to trace the many returnees who did not cooperate by self-quarantining.

Needless to say, the military is not the best agency to handle the outbreak of diseases. One of the major sources of contagion in recent weeks has been the Army-run Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. Major General Rachit Arunrangsi, director general of the Army Welfare Department, was infected by the deadly virus after organising a major match on 6 March – two days after the government’s recommendation not to hold packed gatherings. The general ordered the stadium disinfected before the match, but he was apparently oblivious to the fact that some people among the thousands of fans in attendance that day were ill with the virus. The result was dozens of confirmed cases tied to the boxing venue.

The real warriors in this instance are Thailand’s medical and public health workers. Unfortunately, they lack the necessary personal protective equipment – the armour of choice in the hazardous war against the pandemic.

What the military did do was to help clean the streets of Bangkok. Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong joined his troops in spraying germ-killing chemicals on 23 March. But this amounted only to a publicity stunt for psychological effect.

The real warriors in this instance are Thailand’s medical and public health workers. Unfortunately, they lack the necessary personal protective equipment – the armour of choice in the hazardous war against the pandemic. The abysmal state of affairs is the consequence of bad politics and mismanagement. Huge quantities of masks were exported, while hospitals and markets ran out of them. The director-general of the Department of Internal Trade in the Ministry of Commerce, Vichai Pochanakit, has been assigned to a lower-profile post because of the mask debacle. While the government has said that it has sufficient resources to cope with the situation, many major hospitals in Thailand have appealed for donations of cash and equipment. Three agencies relevant to the fight against the virus are run by ministers from different parties in the ruling coalition. The Bhumjaithai Party oversees the Ministry of Public Health ministry, the Democrat Party the Ministry of Commerce, and Phalang Pracharat the Ministry of Finance. Politicians accused one another of causing the mask shortage in order to enable their associates and cronies to manipulate the market.

Lines of command and communication are important. Last week, three local authorities announced a string of lockdowns – Buriram on 16 March, Uthai Thani on 17 March and Nakhon Ratchasima on 20 March. On 21 March the governor of Bangkok announced the lockdown of the capital. The announcements came on thick and fast, even as the central government prevaricated on its responses. When the governor of Bangkok announced the lockdown of the capital on 21 March, he was quickly taken to task by the central government spokesperson, who dismissed the Bangkok lockdown as misleading. Later on that day, Governor Aswin Kwanmuang came out to insist that he had the authority to execute the lockdown. On 24 March, Prayut’s government announced its decision to set up an emergency centre for the pandemic. This was slated to open on 26 March, after prolonged confusion over the country’s lockdown measures. In the end, the willy-nilly responses at different levels of government created another set of problems. Massive movements out of the capital to escape the lockdown would have hastened the spread of the disease.

Prayut’s government faces fierce criticism for its weak crisis management. In terms of managing the Covid-19 crisis, the government is on the ropes. To bounce back, it really needs a comprehensive and effective plan for prosecuting the battle against non-traditional security challenges.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the former editor of The Nation (Bangkok).

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/36

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