Coronavirus News Asia

Thailand’s unsung Covid-19 success story

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BANGKOK – When a Chinese tourist was diagnosed with the Covid-19 coronavirus on January 13, the first known infection outside of China before the disease made its fatal global sweep, Thailand would have seemed a likely locale for mass contagion and mortality.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists descended on the kingdom over the Lunar New Year holiday, a time when the deadly virus and its contagiousness were barely understood. Prioritizing tourism over health, Thailand’s government left its borders open to China and the wider world.

But when a respected physician at the royally affiliated Siriraj Hospital projected on March 26 that Thailand would have 350,000 cases and 7,000 deaths by mid-April without social distancing, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha invoked emergency rule, centralized crisis management and phased in hard lockdown measures, many of which remain in place.

Prayut’s strongman move, reminiscent of his previous coup-installed military government, sidelined elected politicians who overtly lacked expertise in public health and crisis management, and empowered bureaucrats and medical professionals to command, lead and communicate his government’s Covid-19 response.

Almost instantly, Thailand’s reported daily infections trended down from a high of 188 on March 22, then rising at an exponential upward 33% clip, to zero reported new cases on May 24. The kingdom has been comparatively lightly touched by the virus compared to many of its Southeast Asian neighbors with just 3,045 cases and 57 deaths as of May 26.

While analysts, experts and diplomats view Thailand’s official figures with a measure of skepticism, due chiefly to a lack of widespread and systematic testing, few if any believe officials are involved in a deliberate cover-up to hide cases, mask deaths or portray the nation in a comparatively favorable light.

Mask-clad Buddhist monks at Bangkok’s Maha That Yuwarat Rangsarit temple amid the Covid-19 epidemic. Photo: AFP Forum via Bangkok Post/Arnun Chonmahatrakool

Indeed, there have been no reports of any hospitals being overwhelmed with virus patients, nor has there been any discernible surge in pneumonia or other fatal illnesses that could be Covid-19 related, diplomats and experts say. With a relatively free press and an even freer social media, officials would be hard-pressed to censor or hide any sudden rash of cases.  

While researchers and scientists grapple with why some countries have been more hard hit than others, with governance, health care, culture and climate all under study as possible determinants, Thailand’s so far mild Covid-19 experience likely owes to a uniquely Thai mix of factors.

Those include a successful appeal to Thai nationalism that has underwritten consensus compliance, where stay-at-home and social distancing orders have been portrayed and obeyed as patriotic duty. That’s seen in near universal adoption of mask-wearing, with resident Westerners often the only maskless outliers.

Thailand’s tentative success could also owe in part to culture, as Thais traditionally greet without touching through prayer-like, palm-pressed wais. A Buddhism-inspired reticence, witnessed on often eerily silent public transit buses and trains, has also arguably helped to keep aspirated viral contagion out of the air.   

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