Business hopes in Thai tourist destinations, such as Pattaya and Phuket, that a soon-to-be-available vaccine will bring about a quick international recovery by mid-2021 are sadly premature. The logistics of vaccinating the necessary 70 percent of the Thailand’s population of around 67 million people any time soon are overwhelming as they are throughout the world with its total population of 7.8 billion. Nothing on this scale has ever been tried in human history.
Firstly, the vaccines and vials to house them have to be manufactured in huge quantities and placed in cold storage. They then have to be transported to health centres which will need to be freeze-farms capable of having facilities to deal with temperatures of minus-70C. Then there’s a list of roll-out priority groups: firstly front-line health workers, then vulnerable groups such as the elderly. And most vaccines currently on trial require a booster jab some weeks after the first. We could be looking at a time scale of at least two years to achieve even a modest herd immunity.
Although the available vaccines are perceived to have a 90 percent success rate in trials, that figure could drop over time or outside of clinical conditions. Nobody knows. Moreover, some people – for example many cancer patients – are unsuitable for vaccination and there is a growing anti-vax movement worldwide which is discouraging the whole notion of technology solving the problem. The fact that several US presidents feel the need to be on TV receiving their jabs tells you a great deal.
Thus, the mere availability of a vaccine does not automatically translate into life returning to normal. In Thailand, many victims of the pandemic – mostly found on airport arrival or in quarantine – are capable of community transmission but are also asymptomatic with uncertain consequences for the general population that could be with us for years. Previous experience suggests caution too. Millions died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but its descendant “seasonal flu” still kills every year. According to the United Nations, HIV has killed 12 million people worldwide including 600,000 as late as the calendar year 2019. Vaccination is a weapon but not a total solution.
Some optimistic commentators are predicting that travel to Thailand by mid-2021 will require only a passport and a certificate of Covid-19 vaccination. This is most unlikely as the virus will still be capable to being passed to the general population on a huge scale. By that time, the total number of Thais to have been vaccinated is likely to be no higher than 25 percent. Nobody is even guessing about foreign expats, mostly vulnerable through age, who doubtless will need to pay through the nose to be jabbed. Indeed, vaccination proof could be one more document to add to your documentary list to obtain the one year extension of stay from your local immigration bureau. Not now but later.
In reality, most immigration policy has already been set for the whole of 2021 and probably longer. Those wishing to enter Thailand seek the approval of Thai embassies abroad, provide a portmanteau of documents and possess coronavirus insurance. Some may also require general medical cover beyond Covid-19. However, it is possible that possession of a vaccination certificate might avoid compulsory quarantine on entry as already tentatively mooted by health ministry officials.
What is clear is that everyone needs to stock up on masks, not throw them away, observe social distancing and frequently wash hands. Tracing and testing still have a long future in Thailand with its leaky borders and the ever-present danger of migrants slipping into the country unobserved and untested. The numbers of foreign visitors to Thailand will rise modestly as more potential tourists learn about the mechanics of dealing with their local Thai embassy. But Pattaya’s bars, massage parlours and fun palaces won’t suddenly fill up because a vaccine has been found. This life-saving development is perhaps the end of the beginning. But sadly it’s not the beginning of the end.