The outbreak of the coronavirus, now officially dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, presents challenges to every nation in the world as governments – particularly China’s – and the WHO scramble to contain the spread, while also minimizing the economic and social impact as safely as possible.
Thailand has been among the numerous countries recently hit by the coronavirus that first broke out in Wuhan, China late last year, with 47 cases at time of writing. Though this is a tiny fraction more than 98,000 cases worldwide, it has been an issue of concern for a country so increasingly intertwined with China.
While the spread of COVID-19 is certainly a health issue for Thailand, the spread began to flatten out in early February as screening procedures public awareness campaigns and other measures appear to be containing its growth, with comparatively slow growth continuing compared with many infected countries.
It is also a major economic issue. Thailand has enjoyed a highly interactive relationship with China, which accounted for more than half of the country’s foreign direct investment in 2019, and more than 27% of the country’s 39 million visitors in the same year – in a tourist industry that according to the Thai finance ministry, makes up nearly 20% of GDP.
One of China’s policies to minimize the global spread, was to ban tour groups from traveling internationally, including to Thailand, the number one destination for China’s holidaymakers. While this is laudable and almost certainly necessary, it has struck a hard blow to Thailand’s tourist industry. According to Sports and Tourism Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn, “Tourism arrivals are expected to drop by 90% year on year through February… We plan to resubmit the visa-free policy to the cabinet in April, but on the condition that the Chinese authorities handle the outbreak first.”
Pipat remains optimistic though. “We hope that China lifts its ban on groups soon,” adding in a later statement, “We expect the virus spread to subside and Chinese tourism to start rebounding after the [mid-April] Songkran holiday.”
But even with this optimistic outlook, the impact will be considerable, with estimates of Bt400 billion Thai Baht (nearly US$13 billion) in shortfalls. The general manager of famed hotel in Bangkok (who wished to remain unnamed) claimed losses of more than BT120 million (about US$4 million) by mid-February, while the owner of mid-sized Phuket hotel stated losses of Bt30 million (about US$1 million).
As for foreign investment impact, there are concerns that even after the virus eventually subsides, Chinese investors might be more cautious. The history of such disasters has shown this to often be the case. But given China’s deep pockets and eagerness not to break its “Belt and Road” project momentum, the aftermath of this crisis may just break ranks with historical precedent.
With the World Health Organization’s January 30 [WHO] declaration of the coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the world and particularly China had to face up to hard truths and consequences. Like the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s – also originating in China – which was brought to heel within seven months, and totally eliminated in under two years – the coronavirus will not abate without considerable and balanced intervention and cooperation on government, corporate and even individual levels.
After an admittedly slow initial response, China went into emergency mode swiftly, bringing lock-downs into effect in Wuhan and its province Hubei, imposing restrictions elsewhere in the country, and even closing many factories to minimize human contact.
As soon as the threat was recognized as serious, Thailand responded, implementing screening procedures at airports, using lessons from the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, and putting a degree of trust in China’s containment policies. Though there were some conflicts between ministries – the health ministry’s primary concern being containing the spread, and the tourism ministry on economic impact – the agreed policies are so far seem to be having a positive effect, with a far slower infection growth than in China itself. Policies continue to evolve.
The private sector is also taking measures. Thai Airways, for example, is disinfecting cabins and cockpits of flights returning from China and other high-risk areas. “Because we have in-flight entertainment, with LCD screens being touched all the time, we deep cleanse every flight before departure,” a Thai executive told a press conference in late January.
More recently, on February 19, a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Vientiane, Laos on COVID-19 to coordinate efforts to contain the spread.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met one on one with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai before the event, and according to a Xinhua report, Wang said that since the outbreak, the Thai royal family, the Thai government and Thai society have extended a helping hand to China, reflecting the friendship between the Thai and Chinese peoples.
“Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha posted a video clip showing his support to people in central China’s Wuhan… China appreciates the reasonable and appropriate measures taken by Thailand as advised by the World Health Organization.”
For all the gloom and doom, the public has shown a pretty measured response, and in contrast with some countries, displays little or no ill-will towards China. After an initial onslaught of misinformation, mostly in social media, with claims such as millions of Hubei Chinese fleeing to Thailand, the Thai government began to prosecute disseminators of false information and implement its own public awareness campaigns, and the initial hysteria quickly died down.
While Bangkok’s Skytrain and MRT ridership is down somewhat, with some playing it safe by taking their cars instead of risking sharing oxygen with fellow commuters – and some of the remaining Chinese tourists – only about half are wearing face masks. During a casual survey of passengers, Chom Yamolyong’s response was typical. “I am wearing the mask for the pollution. You don’t get the coronavirus from the air anyway. I do keep my hands clean though.”
Though the huge and sudden tourism growth required some initial adjustment on the part of Thailand’s people, most appear to recognize the importance of maintaining the symbiotic relationship between the two countries in a world increasingly centered on China.
A nightshift Bangkok taxi driver, Somchai Jaroenpra, said that he is still picking up Chinese tourists despite the scare. “I use hand sterilizer that I also provide for my passengers, and keep my car very clean. I know the authorities are checking the people who visit, so I am not worried. I am happy that some Chinese tourists are still coming here and believe we must welcome them – they still have to get around, like everyone else.”
From the Chinese viewpoint, such official and street level acceptance is welcomed. Lou Wei, Chinese CCTV reporter based in Thailand was reported as saying, “What most impresses me are video clips on social media from the Thai government and immigration police. They send their moral support to the people of Wuhan and all over China. Banners offering moral support at shopping malls also show that Thai people do not blame Chinese people or China for causing the crisis, but believe Thailand and China have joined forces to solve the problem. This really warms my heart… This incident makes me realise that Thailand is a good friend of China.”
To counter the massive, but perhaps necessary drop-off in tourist arrivals from China, government assistance programs have been put in place to help the tourism industry soldier through this difficult period. Thailand is certainly missing its Chinese visitors, but the country is hopeful that with international cooperation and understanding, everyone can tough their way through this crisis in a matter of months, sustain the damage, move on, and look forward to welcoming back Chinese tourists and investors in their numbers, a relationship likely more appreciated – on both sides – than ever before.