BANGKOK — Details emerged on Tuesday that an army-owned boxing stadium ignored a government shutdown order, and held a match that later contributed to nearly a sixth of all confirmed coronavirus cases in Thailand.
The management of Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, which is now considered by health officials to be responsible for the largest cluster of infections, declined to explain why it proceeded with the match on March 6, two days after the venue was told to shut down.
“I was not at the stadium on that day. I don’t know,” stadium’s director of public relations Col. Somkiat Thanomkhum said by phone.
He then referred any inquiries regarding the matter to Col. Somsakun Vijitparb, the stadium’s secretary-general, who said he is not available for comment.
The stadium is owned and operated by the Royal Thai Army – one of the army’s network of commercial ventures which also includes hotels and gas stations.
Of about 800 people infected with the coronavirus so far, the Ministry of Public Health traced at least 132 to the fateful boxing match at the stadium on March 6. The patients were either attendees, staff, or people who came in close contact with those who attended the match.
The match – a typical pandamonium of gamblers and viewers hurdled close together and shouting over each other’s heads – was held despite an order issued on March 3 by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha asking large gatherings to be cancelled or postponed.
A similar order was issued by the Sports Authority of Thailand to the stadium’s management two days prior the match. The document, which was obtained by Khaosod, asked the stadium’s president to consider postponing the match per the prime minister’s instruction.
However, the sport authority’s registrar Wiboon Champangurn later said that order only applied to boxing matches in the provinces, but not the matches held at “standardized” arenas in Bangkok. Stadium’s president Maj. Gen. Rachit Aroonrungsri also told Khaosod on March 5 he will not cancel the match.
And so the fight kicked off on the following day, drawing at least 5,000 visitors, according to media reports.
Speculations linking the stadium to the coronavirus were first raised when actor and boxer Matthew Deane Chanthavanij wrote online on March 13 that he was diagnosed with Covid-19 infection after attending the match.
After Matthew raised the alarm – which initially prompted a health official to warn that he risks violating cybercrime laws – the government urged others present at the match to report themselves at their nearest hospitals.
The stadium announced suspension of all matches on March 14. The City Hall later moved to close down all other boxing stadiums and sports venues on March 18. But the cases linked to the stadium have since skyrocketed.
Even stadium president Maj. Gen. Rachit, who also heads the army welfare department, tested positive for the virus. Sports reporter Noppadol Sritaweekard was also infected – the first and only member of the media to fall victim to the epidemic so far.
And it’s not limited to Bangkok either. Provincial authorities in Nakhon Ratchasima, Roi Et, Kalasin, Khon Kaen, Phrae, Loei, Phatthalung, and Sukhothai have reported patients associated with the March 6 boxing match.
Chachoengsao local administration chief Kitti Paopiamsap posted on his Facebook on March 15 that he was diagnosed with the coronavirus. His wife later tested positive as well.