Women wear masks in a market place in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. The nation-wide wearing of masks is not considered an issue but rather a social responsibility. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

There have been no community-based infections in Thailand for nearly two months. All recently declared cases have been imports from countries such as Egypt, Japan and Sudan. While Thailand’s borders remain largely closed, anyone returning from abroad must undergo 14 days’ quarantine at official centres, such as designated hotels or military camps. Until last week, diplomats and other foreigners, such as United Nations officials, were allowed to quarantine at home.

Most people, whether locals or expatriates, wear masks in public. And most seem to have no problem with this. The result is that Thailand has officially suffered only 3,355 infections and 58 deaths since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. And Thailand is not the only country which appears to have contained the virus. Vietnam has reported barely 400 infections – and zero deaths – since the outbreak. It therefore seems curious that Europe, North America and other parts of the world have not introduced similar precautions. According to well-informed international health professionals, the failure to make the wearing of masks mandatory (rather than recommended) in many countries has contributed significantrly to their inability to crack down properly on the pandemic. (See article Letter from Bangkok on South East Asian counter-pandemic measures)

The Bangkok authorities, who extended their pandemic emegency until the end of August, have been pushing all stops to ensure containment. But this requires nation-wide acceptance. Asians seem to wear masks much more readily than Americans or Europeans even under normal circumstances because of the flue or pollution. It is considered anti-social not to. As an outsider, I wear a facemask even when I go on bike rides although I do adminitedly push it down when no one is around. However, if I absentmindedly leave the house without one, I immediately head back to get one. It is no sweat off my back and now seems completely appropriate if not normal.

The Thais, however, including ordinary people judging by harsh articles in the local press, have been particularly angered by two outside infection incidents last week whereby foreigners had contracted coronavirus outside the country but refused to abide by required precautions. As it is, the Thai authorities initially blamed the virus on foreigners, so such flouting of the rules has made it worse for everyone. The two cases involved an Egyptian military representative with one-day stopovers in Pakistan and China (reportedly on a shopping spree for militay hardware for Cairo’s operations in Libya) and the daughter of a Sudanese diplomat, who may have contracted the virus on her flight from the Middle East back to Thailand. Both visited malls and may have infected others.

The Bangkok authorities have now more or less put a hold on all outside travel to Thailand. This is preventing families or professionals who have been travelling to head back to Thailand. In the same vein, expats based in Thailand who had organized trips back to Europe for business purposes have had to put these arrangements on hold. The Thai government announced that everyone, including diplomats, must now quarantine at official centries and at their own costs rather than at home.

Thailand: Slowly embracing the ‘new’ normal

Nevertheless, the country is slowly moving toward a new ‘normal’. Bangkok traffic is almost back to pre-pandemic congestion and pollution. Many offices are functioning again more or less as before with people returning physically to work, or operating from home, or a combination of the two. UNSCAP, the United Nations regional campus for Asia-Pacific, for example, is still functioning at partial capacity for safety reasons or to keep costs down. Office air conditioning, for example, often means cooling whole floors for only a small number of employees.

While Bangkok health officials were hoping to be able to open up the country to select arrivals from abroad, such as business people and “high quality” tourism, including medical tourism, it now looks as if Thailand may hold back on opening up until at least September. For a country that makes up to 20 per cent of its income from tourism, this is devastating. Many internationally-oriented medical and dental centres aimed at overseas clientel are also operating at low capacity; most are offering exceptional 50 per cent discounts on treatment. This largely aimed at residents suggesting that now is the time to deal with any treatments, including plastic surgery or teeth whitening, which they have been holding off.

Thailand’s night markets, such as this one in Chiang Mai, are normally thronging with tourists. Now only local Thais and foreign residents frequent them. Most people also wear masks. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Some hotels have re-opened, but most tourism sites, such as island resorts requiring air travel, remain largely deserted. Resorts closer to Bangkok, however, are advertising ‘staycations’ with special rates, particularly for professionals and their families who work at home. Neverthless, numerous restaurants and bars remain shut, many unable to pay rent while closed; an estimated one fifth are not expected to re-open.

Traditional attractions ranging from massage parlours to bike shops and ocean diving facilities also remain closed. Tens of thousands of people, both Thai and foreigners, have been left without eimployment. Chiang Mai, a northern Thailand city that is normally besieged by foreign tourists, is almost empty apart from local or expatriate visitors from Bangkok on weekend sorties and benefitting from exceptional holiday discounts.

Why are Thailand and Vietnam not regarded as possible models?

Compared to Europe and the United States, Thailand has proven exceptionally methodical in its approachs to containment. (See article on Swiss Air’s failure to social distance) The bottom line, however, appears to be in engendering a broad respect amongst the population for doing what is needed, notabliy the wearing of face masks and appropriate social distancing coupled with close border controls linked with testing and tracking.

What is clear, however, is that none of such achievements can ensure a return to normal and economic recovery without other countries also bringing the pandemic to heal. Thailand, Vietnam and other southeast Asia nations will not permit a return to full international business and tourism until all outside threats of infection remain. And an effective vaccine is introduced.

Edward Girardet, who is editor of Global Geneva, is based between Bangkok and Geneva.

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