The first recorded coronavirus infection outside of China was in Thailand where a Chinese tourist was identified with the disease as early as January 2020. In spite of many scares about superspreader events in boxing stadiums seafood markets and illegal casinos in Pattaya and elsewhere, the country has retained an impressive record of controlling the pesky virus. So far, the country has recorded only about 27,000 cases with a remarkably low death rate of about one third of one percent.
Pattaya itself in most months has been totally free of recorded cases, even though the overall population has been substantially reduced by the absence of foreign tourists and the evacuation of thousands of unemployed workers back to their home provinces. An official at the Thai Tourist Authority actually conjectured that the lack of overcrowding in most buildings and on Pattaya and Jomtien beaches could well be one reason why the city has escaped the virus.
A popular belief amongst the expat crowd in Pattaya is that many of them had a really bad cold and cough last winter which, unknown to them, was Covid-19. So, the argument goes, they have developed immunity and need not worry again. This point was put to Dr Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, of the Thai Red Cross, who dismissed the idea of an early outbreak of coronavirus prior to public recognition. He said that any initial ambiguity was caused by a lack of laboratories in Thailand to test for the virus: only two in January 2020 compared with 250 now.
Another myth is that Thailand is a hot country much hated by the virus. If that was an important factor, it is difficult to see why there have been mass outbreaks in other sweltering countries such as India. Conspiracy theorists have also joined the bandwagon. A Facebook blogger claims to know a pathologist at Banglamung mortuary, near Pattaya, who says nobody has died from the virus there and that the whole pandemic panic is nonsensical. “It’s the flu under another name,” the keyboard warrior suggests.
Epidemiologist Dr Wiput Phooscharoen has done detailed research in southern Thailand and found that 90 percent of coronavirus cases in his sample were asymptiomatic. He conjectured that Thais might have an immune system better equipped to deal with Covid-19, just as they are notoriously prone to falling seriously sick with dengue fever. The possible links between coronavirus infection and racial characteristics is likely to a popular research topic for years to come.
Thammasat University’s infectious diseases expert Prof Anucha Apisarnthanarak says there are actually three main reasons why Thailand’s infection rate has been low. Firstly, the government lockdowns have been nationwide, even if small variations have been allowed province by province, whilst the air travel restrictions with compulsory quarantining have been effective. Secondly, the Thai government has allowed scientists to take the lead in combatting the virus. Lastly, the public education campaign has been clear and coordinated by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
The CCSA has sent a consistent message about the need for mask wearing, frequent washing of hands and social distancing. Whilst these precautions are by no means universally observed, they are perhaps better realized than in many other countries. Some initiatives have certainly flopped. The contact tracing app Thai Chana has been a failure and reportedly has created volumes of spam, but the manual signing-in at major superstores has been more successful.
Thailand’s battles are by no means over. Gigantic questions remain about the vaccination rollout program and the knock-on effects of the potential reduction, or even abolition. of quarantine travel restrictions. The political crisis in Myanmar is likely to lead to further illegal immigration through Thailand’s notoriously leaky land borders. There have already been virus outbreaks at the border brothel town of Tachileik and the casino resort at Myawaddy. This is certainly no time to take your eye off the ball.