THAILAND’S COVID RECOVERY RELAPSE – THE NIKKEI RECOVERY INDEX

The Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index ranks countries on low numbers of confirmed cases, better vaccination rates and less stringent social distances measures at the end of each month, ranking which country is closer to recovery. 

This abridged article from Nikkei Asia discusses the rise and fall of Thailand’s rating with the message that overconfidence can be deadly.

As the pandemic broke out across the world in 2020, many Asia-Pacific countries became examples of what can be achieved with discipline and political will, despite having far fewer resources than wealthy countries of the West.

While they distinguished themselves by quick action and effective measures that largely contained the virus, a year later that willpower seems to be fraying. Fatigue has combined with complacency, along with misplaced optimism about the speed of vaccine rollouts and their effectiveness in keeping infections at bay.

In Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, a trio of Southeast Asian countries that had experienced very few infections until this spring, the onset of cases was sudden.

The Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index tracks various yardsticks along the path back to normality, many of the countries at the top of the index six months ago have since taken steep tumbles, partly due to new variants but also as a result of fatigue and complacency.

THAILAND’S COVID RECOVERY RELAPSE – THE NIKKEI RECOVERY INDEX

It might not be a coincidence that countries with low or falling case numbers and well-functioning economies in 2020 are now headed toward disaster.

Thailand, which went many months last year without a single case of community infection, has been hammered by the virus. There were 59 deaths all last year, and the daily rate now regularly eclipses that. Intensive care units are full.

The virus’s progress shows the unpredictability of the pandemic’s path; when predictions of imminent success cause politicians, regulators and the scientists advising them to drop their guard, optimism becomes fatal.

Thailand’s outbreak started at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Ground zero was in the fish markets in Samut Sakhon, outside Bangkok, that employ many migrant workers from Myanmar. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, upmarket nightclubs in the residential and entertainment Thonglor neighborhood went back to business as usual. Government ministers, foreign diplomats and about 20 local police officers supposedly monitoring the area were among the infected.

Thailand was a COVID-19 success story last year, with the army taking the lead on securing borders and controlling quarantine locations. But the measures put massive pressure on the Thai economy, its GDP shrinking 6.1% in 2020, according to the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council.

Despite the unprecedented death rates of the past month, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remains undeterred from his optimistic announcement that Thailand would open fully in October. His optimism, he says, comes from confirmed orders that have been placed for vaccines, and the proportion of the population that should have received at least one dose by October. But vaccinations, which began in March, are going slowly. By Wednesday (7th July), some 10.7 million doses had been administered to a population of nearly 70 million.

“A lot of the vaccine problems at the beginning were because the government and bureaucracy had trouble wrapping their minds around the problem,” one observer told Nikkei Asia. “The doctors wanted to play safe, not muck around too much and not sign these [vaccine orders] — they didn’t want to go to jail.”

Thailand’s death rate has been soaring, but Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remains optimistic that the tourist-dependent country will fully reopen to international travelers in October.

Success will depend heavily on whether Siam Bioscience, a company wholly owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, meets production targets of 10 million AstraZeneca doses per month for Thailand. The company also has export obligations. Only 5.37 million doses were delivered locally in June, and the figure is not expected to exceed 6 million in July, according to one of the ministries involved.

High society vaccine queue jumpers, meanwhile, have widened the social gap in one of the world’s most unequal societies. “There are real incidents of people with connections being able to get vaccines for themselves and their families,” a retired civil servant told Nikkei Asia. “This is not gossip; people boast about it openly, even on Facebook.”

Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, the spokesman for the Thai government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, in February told a news briefing in Bangkok: “It doesn’t matter if the vaccine arrives soon or later because it has no impact on the Thai people. As we have seen, we have been using face masks, cloth or surgical, to protect individual safety and hygiene.”

But the pandemic continues to teach a harsh lesson: Optimism is often fatal.