COVID in Thailand: Failed and Foolhardy Predictions

By James Wise, Former Australian Ambassador to Thailand

Former ambassador and author James Wise on how Thailand averted COVID disaster and what it means for its economy and politics.

Thailand was threatened and then submerged by its biggest flood in decades, perhaps ever, in 2011. Doomsayers predicted that masses of people would die because leptospirosis – a bacterial infection often found in contaminated water – would be rife, that Bangkok’s water supply would be undrinkable, and that power interruptions would cripple essential services.

Yet there was no leptospirosis. And European experts stood thigh-deep in Bangkok’s floodwaters, turned on taps throughout the city, and found the water safe to drink.  The lights also stayed on; indeed, about 80 of the 800-plus victims of the floods were, sadly, electrocuted.

These failed predictions may not have been wasted. They may have prompted public health officials and the water and electricity authorities to take steps to avert disaster.

The same may be true in relation to COVID-19.  Perhaps predictions in January that the pestilence in Wuhan would soon be visited upon Thailand prompted Thai health officials to be more alert. The predictions certainly prompted most Bangkokians to wear face masks.

As of 11 May, Thailand had 3,009 cases, the lowest incidence of COVID-19 of all the five founding members of ASEAN: Malaysia (6,656); Philippines (10,794); Indonesia (14,032) and Singapore (23,336).

Thailand’s low incidence rate owes a lot to its pandemic preparedness. In Johns Hopkins University’s October 2019 assessment of 195 countries, Thailand was ranked sixth in the world and first in South East Asia – a truly impressive achievement.

Thailand’s success so far in responding to COVID-19 may have additional explanations. Thais neither shake hands nor kiss each other. The distinctive Thai wai greeting (pressing palms together with a slight bow of the head) is an example of centuries-old social distancing on a national scale.

Thai monks practice social distancing measures
Buddhist monks protect themselves from COVID-19 in Bangkok, Thailand - April 2, 2020. Image credit: Thavorn Rueang, Shutterstock. 

Most Thais wash their hands and bathe often. Unlike some of their neighbours, few Thais spit in public. Bangkok may be chaotic and polluted, but Thais are neat and clean.

Also, although epidemiologists still don’t know why, the number of cases in the Mekong region seems low. Fewer cases may simply reflect fewer tests. But perhaps the energy-sapping Mekong climate is a factor. Scientists simply don’t yet know.

But these silver linings are on still gloomy coronavirus-clouds. And, to date, the performances of the prime minister and ministers, including the health minister, have often been muddled.

They did not ban visitors from China, but even considered visa-free entry, then, luckily, China banned its citizens from travelling. They absurdly insisted that Thais returning home first find a doctor to certify that they were virus-free. They turned on quarantine for arriving Thais, then turned it off, then on again.

They also looked the other way while army generals sponsored Muay Thai matches, which became a super-spreader of the virus. They toyed with the idea of cutting the budget of Thailand’s universal health care scheme, but deferred major purchases of military equipment only after a public backlash. Inconsistent messages about the availability of face masks led to panic buying, then a ministerial aide was caught exporting masks to China.

And they responded condescendingly to Thais who complained that it was hard to qualify for the Bt5,000 ($US154) per month payments which were part of the government’s economic package. At one stage, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha even said the payments would be available for only one month, then he backtracked.

The same confused policy-making, contradictory messaging and self-serving conduct were evident among ministers during the 2011 floods. Yet, then as now, professional government officials worked diligently to make a disaster less disastrous and, at local level, Thais responded with an unruffled, community-minded pragmatism.

So Thais overcame the floods—and will probably overcome COVID-19—despite their political leaders, not because of them.

But once the immediate trials of COVID-19 are over, Thais cannot expect competent health officials and pragmatic local communities to overcome Thailand’s main challenge: to resuscitate, then invigorate, the region’s second-biggest economy. Political leadership of rare quality will be essential.

Supplies handed out to Thai families experiencing hardship
Food and water donations supplied to families experiencing hardship during the COVID-19 crisis, Pak Nam Samut Prakan, Thailand - April 29, 2020. Image credit: TRKCHON STUDIO, Shutterstock.

The leadership challenge is bigger in Thailand because COVID-19 slugged an already sluggish economy. Before the virus jumped from bats to humans, Thailand’s economy was growing by only 2.4 percent. Compare that with growth in the other founding members of ASEAN: Indonesia 5.0 percent; Philippines 5.9 percent; Malaysia 4.3 percent; and Singapore 0.7 percent. The comparison with the other members of ASEAN is even starker: Cambodia 7.1 percent, Laos 5.0 percent, Myanmar 6.8 percent, Vietnam 7.0 percent and Brunei 3.9 percent.

In a nutshell, Thailand’s industry, which accounts for 35 percent of GDP, was already suffering from lower global demand, higher local costs and a strong baht. Its old-fashioned agricultural sector, which accounts for less than 10 percent of GDP, but more than 30 percent of the work force, was hit with drought and low commodity prices. A recent World Bank report showed that between 2015 and 2018, under Prayuth’s leadership and well before COVID-19, the number of Thais living in poverty increased by 1.85 million.

The bright spot was tourism, growing to over 18 percent of GDP and over 20 percent of the work force, with 40 million arrivals in 2019 – 11 million of them from China – compared with 14 million arrivals in 2009, and less than 800,000 from China.

The Bank of Thailand is now expecting the economy to shrink by 5.3 percent in 2020, well down from its 2.8 percent growth forecast in December 2019. The IMF’s estimate for 2020 is even more dire: minus 6.7 percent. The vital tourism industry has been savaged. In March 2020, total arrivals plunged by 76 percent, from China by 94 percent.

In a depressed global economy, an already ailing Thailand—heavily reliant on foreign trade, investment and tourists—will be crying out for new visions and new strategies.

Based on its performance since ousting an elected government in 2014, it would be foolhardy to predict that the Prayuth-led regime can suddenly find the imagination, courage and empathy needed to restructure the economy and win the trust of an increasingly disheartened and disbelieving public.

Thai PM
Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-Cha walks amongst the grounds of Government House, Bangkok, March 19, 2020. Image credit: SPhotograph, Shutterstock.

After social distancing measures have eased, university students will resume their pro-democracy protests, and the rancour of anti-regime social media attacks will swell. In addition, the Prayuth Government will have disappointed, probably alienated, a lot of the 40-plus per cent of Thais who supported pro-military parties in last year’s free but not fair election.

Prayuth’s instinct will be to silence dissenters, not listen to them. The military-authored 2017 Constitution offers neither safety valves nor dispute resolution mechanisms to lower the political temperature.

Internationally, Thailand will remain wary of both the United States and China. To the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates existing trends in foreign relations, relations with China—already Thailand’s biggest trading partner and a growing source of investment and arms—will thicken.

Formally, the United States will remain an ally, but since the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998 Thai officials have questioned the reliability of American friendship. And in democracy-shy Thailand, American-style democracy was rarely an attractive model. The Trump presidency made it less attractive  –even before COVID-19.

James Wise is the author of Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law and a former Australian Ambassador to Thailand.

Banner image: Commuters wear surgical masks to protect against transmission of COVID-19 during rush hour, Bangkok, Thailand - March 18, 2020. Credit: TZIDO SUN, Shutterstock.