OPINION – For the better part of 2020, Thailand was succeeding in its efforts to slow, or even stop, the spread of Covid-19.
In July, the World Health Organization (WHO) hailed Thailand’s handling of the pandemic, citing its “‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ approach,”
and tapped Thailand to be in a documentary highlighting successful pandemic response models. It may sound as exciting as another season of The Stranded
, but it was a feather in the cap for Prayuth’s government.
What has happened since then has been as deflating and mystifying as, well, The Stranded.
Migrant worker dormitories have been enclosed in barbed wire while official-approved Thonglor go-go bars have seeded outbreaks. Businesses have gone under as uneven restrictions have dragged on for months. Vaccine hesitancy and public anger have surged.
Thailand hasn’t acted in the best interests of everyone. It hasn’t done enough to help its marginalized populations, it has put politics ahead of public transparency in vaccine procurement and business restrictions, and it has undermined confidence in government leadership with seesawing announcements about vaccine eligibility.
Now all that goodwill is melting away as ongoing policy failures damage efforts to open borders and kickstart the economy.
No vaccine equity, no support
Reactionary policies have failed Thailand’s marginalized populations. Yesterday, over 1,000 migrant workers sealed in the Cal-Comp electronics factory in Phetchaburi protested for better conditions after a 12-hour field hospital power outage. Their anger stemmed from, among other things, unequal food and medical care quality compared to their Thai counterparts.
And, again, there was the barbed wire thing in December, when Samut Sakhon’s migrant market workers were fenced in like sick cattle. Something that did not occur then: these migrant workers did not receive vaccines despite very clearly being high-risk. Celebs like Araya “Chompoo” Hargate, however, have recently been given jabs just for living in high-risk zones.
This decision to prioritize the elite, and Thai citizens first, sets Thailand up for an entirely self-made conundrum: Many of the country’s industries are fueled by foreign and low-wage labor; without universal vaccination, they’re prone to unexpected closures.
In the food service industry, which employs thousands of low-wage and immigrant workers, many labor in close quarters in kitchens. Without equitable distribution of vaccines, the risk that they will get sick and businesses will have to close will not go away.
Many Covid clusters have recently emerged in migrant communities. These groups build our condos and hotels, package our food, and rappel down skyscrapers on rickety wooden boards just to wash our windows. Every day, they put their lives in danger to build a better Thailand, yet they do not factor into our vaccination campaign. (Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that migrant workers who contribute to the Social Security fund will get the jab but did not mention the tens of thousands of migrant workers, or more, who are trafficked across the border without status every year.)
Older expats, including American former GIs and foreign retirees who can’t travel for health or financial reasons, are not being prioritized in Thailand’s vaccine rollout either, despite qualifying as high-risk. Their home nations are unlikely to step in
and save the day through embassy-based vaccinations. (So far, only China is vaccinating its private citizens residing abroad.) It’s unclear if vaccine-flush nations like the United States will even donate excess doses to Thailand.
In January, Thai citizens were among the world’s most willing to take the vaccine
. Now? Hardly. According to a Suan Dusit poll, only 63% of Thai citizens are willing to get the vaccine, down 20% from four months earlier.
A total lack of transparency has mired the vaccine rollout in misinformation and distrust.
Thailand bet on an unproven vaccine maker in Siam Bioscience to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. This was going to be Thailand’s only supply. Yet journalists have not been given access to Siam Bioscience and cannot independently verify if the company will meet its promise to deliver millions of doses in June, or the millions more it has promised beyond that.
To supplement the rollout of these shots, Thailand has begun to import vaccines from China’s Sinovac. While the company’s vaccine, Coronavac, is almost certainly effective, it has not yet been approved by the WHO and the company has not been transparent in the reporting of its clinical trial data. Thai netizens have grown to so distrust this vaccine that they jump on anyone trying to promote it as safe, including Chompoo (many Twitter commenters believe her support for the Sinovac shot was part of a government-sponsored promotional campaign).
Thailand’s foreign population has seen its hopes regularly rise and fall. Will foreigners be eligible for free vaccines? Maybe. Who knows? Reports that vaccination registration for everyone will begin on June 7 are promising, but putting this population at the back of the line for optics is likely to backfire, to the detriment of Thailand’s progressive public health system.
All the while, an increasingly out-in-the-open rift between Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has resulted in one thing being shared with the public only for it to be contradicted hours later—a swinging pendulum of public health policy.
Prayuth’s strongman militarism, his violent handling of the 2020 protests, and the judiciary’s crackdown on speech have likewise eroded confidence in his government’s leadership. How can you trust people who shoot from the hip, obfuscate, or outright lie?
How can we fix this?
To ensure that public health policies benefit everyone living in Thailand, the Thai government must immediately make vaccination universal by dropping the requirements to register entirely.
They must also communicate clearly who is eligible based on medical necessity and open mass vaccination centers.
They must offer vaccines to people who are truly at risk first, not celebrities or the well-heeled and well-connected.
They must work with stakeholders in industries like hospitality and food and beverages to create science-backed guidelines that work for everyone.
Above all, they must tell the public where the vaccines are coming from, and when, and explain the decision-making behind public health guidelines and restrictions placed on businesses.
The bungled rollout we’ve enjoyed so far has pushed us far past the time to save face. The government must start telling hard truths. For instance, if Thailand will not be able to vaccinate immigrants, they must make this clear—not just to the public, but to foreign embassies as well.
Everything we’ve been told so far represents the best case scenario, with no thought given to contingency plans. It’s now obvious that the optimal outcome is not going to happen.
Until a coordinated, nationwide vaccination campaign is underway, the anger and distrust will only increase. The sooner the Thai government accepts this, and publicly, the sooner we can work to put this pandemic behind us.
These are the views of BK and Coconuts Bangkok editorial management.