Thailand in Pandemic: Remembering the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

PM Prayut Chan-o-cha greets his supporters during his inspection tour of anti-coronavirus measures in Chonburi on Dec. 30, 2020.

BANGKOK The pandemic brought out all sides of the Thai smile, from smirks of xenophobia to beams of charity.

Our response to the coronavirus – whether aiding the needy or leaving them behind – showed us our true mettle, in the year when an entire nation is tested (literally and figuratively).

The Good: Frontline health workers

Dubbed “heroes in the white gowns,” the medical professionals and rural health volunteers worked day and night to contain the coronavirus outbreak, even if it meant putting themselves at the risk of infection.  

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Nurses bid farewell to a patient who recovered from coronavirus in Krabi province on May 12, 2020.
Nurses bid farewell to a patient who recovered from coronavirus in Krabi province on May 12, 2020.

The Bad and the Ugly: Anutin threatening to punish them if they catch COVID.

Back in March, Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul publicly threatened to “whip” medical personnel who caught the virus for being “careless” and setting a bad example to the public. The backlash was swift, and it was Anutin who was forced to apologize after social media gave him a good whipping. 

The Good: Government’s prompt response that stemmed the outbreak

PM Prayut Chan-o-cha was presented by experts in March with the “worst case scenario”, warning him that the country may see as high of 350,000 cases of infection should he choose to do nothing.

He decided to impose a nationwide curfew from April to June and a raft of other measures, which apparently helped lower the daily case numbers from triple to single digit levels within a single month. By the end of April, the country logged 2,954 cases – eight times less than the most optimistic forecast at 24,269 cases, and an achievement that sets Thailand apart on the global stage. 

In this photo released by Government Spokesman Office, a health official checks the body temperature of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha before he delivers policy to the drought management at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, March 2, 2020.

The Bad and the Ugly: Officials implicated in mask hoarding scandals

The government’s decisive actions were overshadowed by some politicians who were involved in a conspiracy that led to the scarcity and inflated price of face masks in Thailand. The shortage was so severe that some hospitals had to stop issuing face masks to surgeons.

An aide of the controversial minister Thammanat Prompao was accused of hoarding 200 million masks for export to China – at the time they were needed the most in Thailand but no legal action has been taken against him to date.

The Good: Expats helping Thais in need

Regardless of the passport issuing country, hearts from all nations were warmed with stories of expats lending their hands to Thais who were left adrift by the virus. One Italian engineer volunteered for traffic cop duty, while an Indian fine dining chef handed out food to the homeless.

The Bad and the Ugly: Anutin calling farangs “dirty”

A series of xenophobic statements by the health minister left other Thais feeling a burning loss of face. In February, he said farangs who don’t wear masks “should be kicked out,” and later tweeted that “dirty” Europeans who never shower posed more of a virus risk than other races.

Health minister Anutin Charnvirakul receives a donation of face masks and other protective equipment from Chinese representatives on April 13, 2020.

Good: Thais’ charity spirit

Many Thais donated to the less fortunate during the pandemic, as evident in the popular campaign of food donation pantries for people to take what they need amid the peak of the business shutdowns. 

The Bad and the Ugly: Thais shutting their doors to foreigners 

Racism reared its ugly head when some restaurants and hotels started putting up “No Chinese” signs – which aren’t actually illegal. Some bars and banks also refused to serve foreigners, expats included, regardless of their travel history. 

What’s worse, during the early outbreak in March, some hospitals continued to charge dual pricing for foreigners seeking COVID tests. 

An immigration officer disinfects an immigration desk at Suvarnabhumi Airport on March 11, 2020.
An immigration officer disinfects an immigration desk at Suvarnabhumi Airport on March 11, 2020.

The Good: Diplomats who bring Thais home

Members of the Thai diplomatic corps, as confused as the rest of Thais overseas, worked hours over their shift to clear a backlog of desperate citizens who in some cases queued up in front of the embassies in hope of getting the documents they needed to return home. 

The Bad and the Ugly: Confusing regulations that keep out Thai nationals

When Thailand shut down its borders, it also shut out their own citizens, in a possible violation of the Constitution. Ever changing and contradicting policies demanded an increasing number of certifications from Thais overseas, many of which are near impossible to acquire. Some ended up suing the government for stranding its own citizens abroad. 

Empty beach chairs on Koh Larn on June 1, 2020.

The Good: Subsidy programs 

With the absence of foreign tourists due to travel restrictions, the trillion-baht tourism industry pinned their hopes on domestic travelers. Hotels went all in with discounts on once unthinkable suites, while the government rolled out travel subsidy schemes to stimulate spending and keep the crippled industry running.

“No One Left Behind” cash handout packages and the “Half-Half” co-payment program were also introduced to help citizens affected by the pandemic.

The Bad and the Ugly: Subsidy program debacles 

Turns out a lot of people were left behind. In April, PM Prayut admitted that the treasury was able to pay only one month of the promised three-month cash relief package for workers not covered by the social security system. Many applicants were also shut out even though they qualify for the money. 

Greedy hoteliers were later caught gouging the price to rip off government’s money, resulting in the “We Travel Together” program to be put on hold and ruining the fun for everyone. 

Workers disinfect a temple in Bangkok amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 26, 2020.

Good: Celeb raised red flag about COVID-19 

It was actor and boxer Matthew Deane Chanthavanij who broke the news that he tested positive for infection after he attended a match at the crowded Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. His initiative set out an example for others to voluntarily disclose their results and travel history.

The Bad and the Ugly: VIPs skipped quarantine, ignored closure orders

And it was a senior health official who threatened to sue him for spreading panic. The army, which owns the stadium, then attempted to push off any responsibility after it emerged that they flouted a government shutdown order and proceeded with the match on March 6. The decision resulted in at least 140 cases of infection.

Thais were also in an uproar after “VIP” diplomatic guests were allowed to leave quarantine upon their arrival in Thailand. Well yes, we’re talking about those Egyptian pilots. Not the German ones. 

A musician gets his temperature checked at a bar in Chumphon province, Dec. 30, 2020.

Good: Thai and foreign residents keeping everyone safe.

Despite what a certain Thai minister thinks, an overwhelming majority of both local and foreign residents in Thailand wore masks in public, practiced social distancing, and complied with other COVID measures. Their habit contributed to the relatively low numbers nationwide for many months. A survey found that 95 percent of Thais wear face masks in public places – the highest percentage in all of ASEAN. 

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The Bad and the Ugly: Social media nutjobs 

News about COVID-19 case numbers, latest outbreak situations, and helpful information about health and safety measures almost always draws a large number of self-proclaimed “experts” in the comments section who’re convinced the COVID pandemic is a “hoax,” a “bioweapon,” or simply “not that dangerous.” 

They are all wrong, of course. COVID was actually engineered by the Lizard people. Duh.