The China-Wuhan padlock model is not the answer to Thailand’s health crisis

In Wuhan China last year, food parcels were delivered by hand to locked-in residents.

Thailand’s Department of Disease Control is not known for humorous remarks. So when its director this week warned that the Wuhan model – forcing people to remain in their homes 24/7 – could later be necessary in some Thai provinces, many of us blanched white.

There is no question that the Wuhan lockdown, best described as a padlockdown, was effective locally. On January 23, 2020, the Chinese authorities sent a message to all smartphones that nobody was allowed to enter or leave Wuhan, or its satellite cities. The population was ordered to stay at home unless an outside visit was approved by the “shequ,” or communist neighborhood committees, which are a surviving legacy of the Mao Zedong era.

It should be noted that there is no equivalent in Thailand of street committees. In Pattaya, for example, there are 300 or so Thai volunteer police currently assisting in curfew enforcement at night, but thousands would be needed to enforce a street-by-street lockdown. It is also far from clear that the Thai population would endure the circling of condo blocks and estates with barbed-wire fences as happened in Wuhan. The Bangkok military-backed government may look authoritarian to its critics here, but they are beginners compared with Beijing.

In a stimulating article in the Bangkok Post, Chartchai Parasuk pointed out that the Wuhan 10 weeks lockdown resulted only in 0.174 percent cost to Chinese economic growth. But Bangkok and the surrounding provinces account for almost half of Thailand’s total gross domestic product. If that kind of padlocking occurred in Thailand, expect to see bank closures, riots, more coup attempts, utter pandemonium in food stores and all the rest. And tourists? Forget about them for years to come.

A lonesome resident of Wuhan walks near the brightly-lit but locked down city of Wuhan in March 2020.

It is not fully clear that the Wuhan experiment, locally successful for sure, resulted in flattening the pandemic curve in the rest of China. Other measures might have been responsible for that reality, such as massively reduced international and domestic flights, a road travel ban and changing diagnostic and testing criteria. We will likely never know the details as the all-powerful Chinese authorities “strongly disapprove” of non-approved citizenry talking to the media. Say no more.

Thailand’s future prospects now rest on how effectively the current rules are enforced and how quickly mass vaccination comes on stream. There is no point in banning booze gatherings by proclamation if groups continue to drink bottles of beer on certain beach areas of Pattaya after dark. No point either in dissuading people from local travel within a city or province if the road checkpoints are not staffed by day as well as by night. As the rascal Roman poet Catullus wrote, “Unenforced laws are a joy to behold.” The virus, whatever your stance on vaccination or politicians, can be tackled only by acts and not by words. The unpopular lockdown is here. Let’s get on with it.