Thailand risks missing its target of fully reopening the country in about 100 days as it resists the harsh measures needed to contain the deadliest wave of COVID-19 infections.
The spread of the delta variant nationwide and low rate of vaccinations mean new cases and fatalities will continue to spike, according to health experts. Meanwhile, hospitals have already run out of beds for critically ill patients after a tenfold surge in infections since early April. That’s forced authorities to open temporary treatment facilities and even convert some hotels into hospitals.
Thailand, the first country outside China to report a COVID-19 infection, has struggled to stem the pandemic after its initial success to combat the virus last year, when it imposed a hard lockdown. But that crippled its all-important tourism industry and plunged the economy into its worst performance in more than two decades. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha wants to avoid further damage to jobs and industries, and is now pushing for an early reopening.
With the more contagious delta variant, first detected in India, now sweeping through the region, there’s growing pressure on leaders like Prayuth and Indonesian President Joko Widodo to impose tighter measures. Any further dithering may lead to the crisis worsening in Thailand, according to Anan Jongkaewwattana, an expert in molecular virology and director of the research unit at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
“A strict lockdown is the only way out,” Bangkok-based Anan said. “It might hurt the economy now, but things will be better in the long run once we can contain the spread.”
Prayuth set a 120-day deadline last month to fully open Thailand to vaccinated foreign visitors, which he said was a calculated risk to reduce “the enormous suffering of people who have lost their ability to earn an income.” He wants the tourism industry, which contributed about 20% to gross domestic product pre-pandemic, to hum again.
That has meant allowing many businesses to operate normally in Bangkok and nearby provinces even though they are the hotspots of the current COVID-19 wave. Although Prayuth has ordered restrictions for restaurants and construction work, the outbreak has raged on with daily cases averaging more than 5,000 in the past week.
A lockdown of Bangkok and other hotspots will be considered if the health officials recommend it, the national COVID-19 task force said Wednesday.
“If this situation continues, the Thai outbreak will be worse than Indonesia’s on a per-capita basis, with as many as 20,000 cases per day in the next few months,” Anan said. “Infections aren’t just limited to construction camps and crowded communities — it’s more widespread than that so current restrictions aren’t enough.”
The worsening outbreak has also hurt investor confidence with the nation’s equities and currency both bearing the brunt. The baht is trading near a 14-month low against the dollar, while the SET index of stocks tumbled 3.5% from a 19-month high reached in mid-June as foreign investors turned net sellers of $1.48 billion of stocks in the second quarter.
Koraphat Vorachet, a strategist at Bangkok-based Capital Nomura Securities Pcl, is advising clients to be selective in their investments given uncertainties stemming from the pandemic. The Phuket model of reopening needs to be watched closely as a major COVID-19 outbreak in that resort island would lead to a suspension of activities and delay any recovery, he said.
Thai companies are also wary of a hurried reopening without fully controlling the outbreak. A majority of the chief executives surveyed by the Federation of Thai Industries want the government to reopen the country only when new infections are down significantly.
Thailand’s economic recovery will be hampered given the slow vaccine rollout, ineffectiveness of some jabs against the delta variant and its quick spread, according to Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bangkok-based Bank of Ayudhya Pcl’s research unit. Fiscal and monetary policies must be direct and targeted at those most affected by the pandemic, he said.
“Health is an exogenous variable at the moment, and what Thailand can do now is to issue more economic measures,” Somprawin said. “It’s like being in the ICU — you have to make sure to keep the economy alive first before focusing on making it better.”
The growing outbreak has forced the government to junk its policy of compulsory hospitalization of all COVID-19-positive patients, allowing home isolation for the first time. To counter the delta variant, people should consider a full voluntary lockdown to avoid getting infected, according to Anutra Chittinandana, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians of Thailand.
“Evidence suggests that the infections are already widespread, and current restrictions won’t help contain the outbreak,” Anan said. “If we don’t tighten restrictions, the infection rate will rise exponentially.”
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