Back in January when news of a novel coronavirus reached Thailand, the situation seemed at first isolated to the city of Wuhan in China where the outbreak began. Even by the time Hubei Province was under lockdown, there were only a handful of confirmed cases in Thailand, all of which linked to China. However, over the course of a few months, the new strain of coronavirus known as COVID-19 has become a global pandemic forcing millions into social distancing and confinement at home. While China appears to have reduced the sanitary crisis to a manageable level, Europe has counted more than 70,000 deaths related to the highly contagious disease, followed by the U.S. with more than 20,000 fatalities so far. COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on Thailand, too, as the country is fighting against the invisible enemy.
Evolution of the coronavirus pandemic in Thailand
On January 31, a day after the World Health Organization declared an international health emergency, Thailand saw its first locally transmitted case involving a taxi driver in Bangkok. Throughout the following month, the number of known infections remained relatively low, reaching 42 by the end of February. On March 1, however, Thailand reported the first death in the country, a 35-year-old Thai who had also contracted the dengue virus.
The following weeks saw a surge in the number of coronavirus cases. A Muay Thai boxing event which took place at the famous Lumphini Boxing Stadium on March 6 despite a public order to cancel or postpone mass gatherings is said to have sickened at least 150 people among the 5,000 attendees. While the sport venue was only one of several transmission zones, the boxing match cluster was clearly a wake-up call that the new coronavirus posed a domestic threat.
The current situation
The outbreak reached a new daily record on March 22 when 188 new cases were reported. It remains so far the highest number since the epidemic started in the kingdom. As of today (April 12), there has been a total of 2,551 confirmed infections in Thailand with a cumulative death toll of 38 (Bangkok Post). Most new cases fall into two categories: people who had been in contact with previous patients and those who have recently returned from abroad. The COVID-19 virus has currently spread in 68 (out of the 77) provinces in Thailand. While Bangkok retains the highest number of known cases, most new occurrences are now showing up in the provinces.
At the moment, it is too early to evaluate the real advancement of the coronavirus. Testing remains largely insufficient in Thailand, as globally the case. Nevertheless, social distancing coupled with preventive measures by the government will hopefully lead to a consistent decline in viral transmissions over the coming weeks.
The Thai government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has met with heavy criticism, in part due to the slowness in action. Compared to Wuhan which found itself under complete lockdown almost overnight, measures aimed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand have been gradual and took a dramatic pace towards the end of March. On March 3, Prime Minister Chan-o-cha called for large gatherings to be cancelled or postponed. But after the kickboxing scandal, the government ordered the temporary closing of all recreational sites, including bars, cinemas and spas, as well as schools and universities from March 18 onwards (The Nation). Department stores and restaurants have been added to the partial lockdown, though takeaway restaurants may still operate. Based on current information, the shutdown of non-essential businesses will last until the end of April.
State of emergency and curfew
Given the continued rise in case numbers, the Thai government eventually declared a state of emergency, effective from March 26 to April 30. However, the announcement on March 24 did not indicate any precise measures and perversely aggravated the situation. The previous closing of various businesses and fear of a full lockdown prompted thousands of migrant workers in Bangkok to return to their hometowns in a massive exodus. Miscommunication about a potential lockdown thus contributed to a significant health risk among these travelers and to their families back home. Similarly, the government’s attempt to reassure the public of sufficient food supplies did little to prevent panic hoarding in supermarkets in Bangkok and the greater area.
Ultimately, the Thai government implemented a national curfew on April 3. Contrary to an expected full lockdown, it only applies to the night hours from 10pm to 4am. In a recent statement, the government denied rumors about an upcoming 24-hour curfew saying that no such plan has been put forward (The Nation).
Domestic travel restrictions
In response to the high contamination risk at Bangkok’s bus terminals and for people living in the provinces, the Thai government ordered the suspension of all bus ticket sales in the capital until the end of April. To further reduce the movement of people and thereby the transmission of the coronavirus, it has imposed travel restrictions in a number of provinces, affecting not only inter-provincial traveling, but in some cases even between neighboring districts. The order exempts the transportation of essential goods and that of medical workers, as well as those with a special permission to travel. Under the emergency decree, the military has set up hundreds of checkpoints across the country to check travelers for symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.
International travel restrictions
While international travel restrictions in the U.S. and Europe came into place as early as January 31 and March 11, respectively, it was still possible to enter the Thai kingdom as a foreigner until March 26. However, some airlines had grounded their entire fleet earlier. All foreigners, exceptions aside, are now denied entry into Thailand at all points until the end of April. In its latest move, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) has also ordered the suspension of all incoming commercial flights until April 18, even if they carry Thai citizens trying to return from overseas (Bangkok Post).
According to the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking (JSCCIB), 7 million people in Thailand will find themselves jobless by June 2020. Layoffs due to the shutdown of many businesses will mostly affect low-wage workers across multiple sectors (Bangkok Post). The committee further predicts a recession despite an approved 1.9 trillion baht stimulus aimed to relieve the economic impact of the pandemic.
Earlier, the Thai government approved a relief package for self-employed workers without social security coverage. It comes in the form of cash handouts of 5,000 baht per month for a period of up to 6 months. More than 20 million people have signed up online for the grant, though only 9 million will be eligible according to PM Chan-o-Cha.
One of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak is the tourism sector. The number of tourist arrivals fell by more than 44% in February in a year-to-year analysis. Chinese nationals make up most of all incoming visitors. Thus, when China closed its borders, it essentially put a stop to the peak season in Thailand. In a worst-case scenario, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) forecasts a drop of tourist numbers from last year’s 39.8 million to 30 million in 2020 (Business Insider).