Thailand is still posting record numbers of COVID-19 cases these days. But the government is gradually relaxing restrictions, even as some Thais themselves would rather not have some measures eased just yet.
In March 2022, the education authorities announced that classroom teaching at schools will resume after a two-year hiatus, as they admitted that some young students have failed to learn to read, write, and do basic math with online education. Most shops are now open, as are restaurants; only bars, discotheques, pubs, and massage parlors remain shut (although bars registered as restaurants have been open for months now). In Bangkok, on March 15, local authorities began allowing indoor meetings, seminars, and parties to take place.
As of mid-April, a one-night stay at an alternative state quarantine (ASQ) hotel and RT-PCR test upon arrival, and yet another test, this time using an antigen test kit, on day five are still imposed for incoming tourists. But that’s already an improvement from two months earlier when two nights of ASQ accommodations were required — on the first night upon arrival and the fifth night.
By mid-2021, the idea of trying to coexist with COVID-19 had gained traction within the Thai government. And while the tug of war between those who want to see maximum measures imposed and those wanting to see Thailand free from all but very minimum restrictions continues, it appears that the latter are gaining more ground, after two years of the pandemic wreaking havoc on the Thai economy, particularly the tourism industry and the service sector.
The tourism industry in Thailand constitutes over 20 percent of the kingdom’s GDP income. From 2017 to 2020, tourism contributed a total of THB 1 trillion (US$29.72 billion), according to the data website Statista. Meanwhile, the Bank of Thailand says that the country’s GDP shrank 6.1 percent in 2020 from that in pre-COVID 2019. Last year, Thailand’s GDP returned to a positive growth although it was by a very modest 0.9 percent.
Clearly, the ailing Thai economy is a large factor in the government’s decision to relax COVID-19 restrictions. Over the past few months, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has repeatedly suggested to the public to learn to live with a level of COVID-19 infections as the “new normal.”
At present, the goal is to declare COVID-19 as endemic in Thailand by July 2022, instead of continuing to respond to it in the context of a pandemic. It’s not a position that is unique to Thailand. Singapore, for example, began implementing its “exit strategy” from the pandemic as early as August 2021. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez thought it was time to start treating COVID-19 as endemic in January 2022, while the United Kingdom calls its current strategy “living with COVID-19.”
“Endemic” would mean COVID-19 will still be around but would be manageable. That would be largely because it would be predictable — which health experts say is not the case just yet. Recently, Dr. Udom Kachintorn, an advisor to the government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, even told the press that the real number of infections in Thailand is likely to be over 100,000 per day, not the recorded daily 50,000 to 60,000. This, said the doctor, is because about two to three times the number of those infected are not getting tested.
“I am worried that it will spread further during Songkran because people will gather,” Udom said, referring to the traditional Thai New Year, which runs from April 13 to 15. Despite that, he acknowledged that the government’s stance is to gradually and continually reduce COVID-19 measures in the future.
At the very least, the government banned for the third consecutive year the traditional — and oftentimes rowdy — water fights during Songkran 2022. But private businessmen have been putting increasing pressure on the government to lift remaining restrictions, such as the mandatory quarantine upon arrival in the country, as well as the ban on the operations of nightspots, especially in tourist districts such as Bangkok’s popular Patpong.
Paris and Bangkok
The thinking is that Bangkok can well follow in the footsteps of Paris, which before the pandemic the Thai capital had unofficially competed with to be called “the most visited place in the world.” Today, despite the much higher daily infections in France compared to Thailand, entering Paris and the rest of France requires no ASQ or PCR tests before or after landing — just full vaccinations. Mandatory mask-wearing is also being lifted in France except in public transport, while it is still fully enforced in Bangkok and the rest of Thailand.
Thais batting for fewer or no restrictions also point to the country’s high vaccination rate. As of April 10, 2022, 131 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Thailand. Assuming that at least two doses are given per individual, that would mean that there was enough to cover 95 percent of the kingdom’s population of 69 million people. Vaccines are now widely available and accessible to most sectors of Thai society, and more children are now being encouraged to be vaccinated.
The COVID-19 death rate has also stayed around 100 per day. Last April 11, though, about 105 Thais died due to COVID-19 over the period of 24 hours; 2,065 people infected with the virus were recorded as well as suffering from lung infections. Those critically ill from COVID-19 totaled 1,496 as of April 9.
There were nearly 251,000 still being treated for the disease in Thailand as of April 10, although the majority of them were practicing self-treatment at home due to greater protection derived from vaccinations and the fact that Omicron, which is currently the dominant coronavirus variant in the country, is less severe than Delta.
The Thai government says that at present the situation is still manageable. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul has also assured the public that despite increasing caseloads expected after the Songkran long holiday and Thailand making it to the top ten countries with the highest daily new infections in early April, the public health system with its medical facilities can still handle it. “Our public health system remains strong,” Anutin was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying.
Not feeling quite safe yet
The government, however, may have shot itself earlier in the foot when it employed scare tactics to emphasize how serious a health crisis COVID-19 was. As late as this year, the government’s COVID-19 Facebook page was still comparing COVID-19 to zombies.
Two years of the government drilling the same dire message and conjuring dark scenarios have made several Thais extremely fearful of getting infected with the coronavirus. On the one hand, the tactic helped propel many Thais toward vaccination centers to get their jabs. On the other hand, it resulted in deep-seated fears.
These days, there are parents who remain reluctant to send their children back to schools. Many Thais are also having trouble accepting a total lifting of COVID-19 measures and restrictions, especially on those coming from overseas. Indeed, when a plan was floated in March that the mask-wearing mandate in public outdoor spaces could be lifted by July, there was an uproar against it on social media.
It may take some time before some Thais are able to rid themselves of COVID-19 phobia. Most likely, their fears would be eased should the daily figures of deaths and newly infected being reported and widely disseminated by the Thai mass media decline and continue to do so.
The Thai government is keeping a close watch on the apparently new BA.2.2 strain of COVID-19, although authorities have said that it is yet to be classified as a concern.
Two years of unpredictability caused by COVID-19 means no one should rule out the possibility of more unpredictability ahead, however. If there is anything predictable about the coronavirus and the disease it causes, it’s that life with COVID-19, for now, is unpredictable.
* Pravit Rojanaphruk, a long-time advocate of press freedom, is a columnist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English.