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COVID: Public frustration grows as cases surge in Thailand

July 8, 2021

Critics have slammed the government for a slow vaccine rollout and insufficient prevention measures. There is also growing concern over the future of tourism, as officials roll out a new scheme to draw visitors.

A doctor removes her personal protective equipment after treating COVID patients at the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok
The number of daily infections has nearly tripled since AprilImage: Athit Perawongmetha/REUTERS

Public trust in Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha's government has reached new lows as the number of daily coronavirus infections spikes and the death toll rises.

Confidence in Prayut's regime was again undermined last week, following a leaked Health Ministry document that included a recommendation against giving health care workers an additional shot of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. Administering the vaccine, the document said, would mean that the government was "admitting that the Sinovac vaccine is not effective."

The document drew heavy criticism on social media, with the Thai-language hashtag "Give Pfizer to medical workers" soon trending. Many netizens say health workers should be fully equipped to tackle the public health crisis, and should be prioritized to receive the most efficient vaccines.

Thailand began vaccinating front-line workers in February and kicked off a mass vaccination campaign in June by administering locally-produced Oxford-AstraZeneca shots and importing the Chinese-made Sinovac.

Daily infections on the rise

The Southeast Asian country was initially praised for keeping outbreaks largely under control for most of 2020. However, much of that work was undone over the past months because of insufficient planning and a poorly handled vaccination program.

The number of new cases has tripled to about 6,000 per day since April, while the daily death toll has remained over 50.

Thailand has reported nearly 90% of its total number of cases and 95% of its deaths since the pandemic began since April. The latest surge in infections was triggered after the virus began spreading through several Bangkok nightlife venues.

Businesses taken by surprise

In an effort to contain its worst outbreak so far, Thailand has reimposed restrictions on restaurants, construction sites and gatherings in the capital and five nearby provinces.

The latest one-month curbs, which were announced in the middle of the night in late June without prior warning or urgent relief measures, prompted widespread criticism and complaints, especially from eateries ailing because of the ban on dine-in services.

"Dine-in services are not allowed, but shopping malls are able to stay open. This doesn't make much sense to me," Thanapong Vongchinsri, the owner of a chain of buffet restaurants, told DW.

"I feel that the government is not sincere and doesn't empathize with SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]. We have had to throw away almost all of the materials that we had ordered for all of our branches," he added.

The recent ban has hit the sector hard, as restaurant owners struggle to stay afloat and are still reeling from the impacts of the previous lockdown restrictions.

"We had to close two branches after the first wave, and we have just decided to close another one in downtown Bangkok," said Thanapong, adding that sales have plummeted by 70-80%.

The prime minister later promised compensation for entrepreneurs and employees affected by his latest order. But the relief packages have hardly boosted his popularity, as many think he is unsympathetic to the public's grievances over the measures.

"We're no less affected than you are, even more so actually because we have to make sure everybody can live through this period. Many countries have it even worse than we do right now," Prayut said in a recent press briefing.

Doubt cast on plan to revitalize tourism

With Bangkok and its surrounding provinces struggling to deal with the COVID-19 surge, the government is pushing ahead with its plans to reopen the popular resort island of Phuket in a bid to salvage the economy.

High hopes have been pinned on the "Phuket Sandbox" scheme which kicked off on July 1. Under the plan, fully vaccinated visitors to Phuket are allowed to roam the entire island. After 14 days, they can travel elsewhere within Thailand.

But the scheme is a major gamble by the Thai government, whose plans depend on the willingness of visitors to tolerate the strict regulations that they will be subjected to in order to enjoy a holiday in Phuket.

"I was mentally prepared for the procedures to be complicated and subject to change," Woranun Pathamakosol, who recently traveled back to Thailand after spending six weeks in the United States to get the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, told DW.

She said the official rules were only announced on June 29, two days before the launch of the scheme.

Apart from being fully vaccinated, travelers must have a minimum $100,000 (€84,330) insurance policy that also covers COVID-19 treatment. They are additionally required to be tested before they leave for Thailand, upon arrival and twice more during their stay. The three COVID-19 tests after arriving in Phuket cost 8,000 Baht (€208, $246), Woranun said.

On top of those rules, travelers must stay for 14 days at approved SHA+ (Health and Safety Administration Plus) hotels, which have been certified according to public health standards, and which have at least 70% of their staff vaccinated. Tourists' movements are also monitored through a mobile app that they are required to download upon arrival.

"I doubt many tourists will actually come. They are discouraged by the regulations and the amount of paperwork involved," Woranun said.

Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia