BANGKOK — Health minister Anutin Charnvirakul on Monday doubled down on his threat to ban coronavirus patients who broke the law from receiving free medical treatment, despite its potential breach of the Thai Constitution.
The controversial minister said he has instructed officials to look into ways to charge patients who were found to have contracted the virus during illegal activities, such as participating in gambling dens and crossing the border illegally. Anutin said his idea is fully legal – though government critics disagree.
“This doesn’t mean that we’re taking precautions after damage has been done,” Anutin said. “We just want people to weigh in on ways to prevent another wave of infections, which may result from the same vicious cycle of letting the disease snuck in from overseas.”
“The national communicable disease committee has set up a sub-committee to deliberate on my proposal,” Anutin added.
The health minister publicized his idea upon having completed his self-isolation for coming in close contact with Samut Sakhon Gov. Veerasak Vijitsaengsri, who was found infected with the coronavirus on Dec. 28. Veerasak remains in critical condition.
“The money which should have been used to treat innocent people have been spent on those who broke the law,” Anutin wrote online Saturday.
“Should the state pay for their treatment? If yes, should the cost be collected from those who imported the disease? The patient and those who smuggled them in must be responsible for all the cost.”
Every Thai citizen and foreign national residing in Thailand is currently eligible for a free coronavirus treatment at hospitals. Anutin’s threat to take that welfare away drew much criticism from government critics, who voiced concerns that his idea may scare people off getting tested.
“If the state signals that it wants to prosecute infected people or put the burden on them,” Move Forward MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn wrote online Sunday. “What will inevitably happen is that many of them will try to hide their history and evade treatment.”
Wiroj went on, “It reflects the vision of the health ministry that he wants to lay blame on everything rather than prioritizing disease control measures.”
Thira Woratanarat, a medicine professor at Chulalongkorn University, also warned that Anutin’s idea may escalate the ongoing outbreak to become even more out of control.
“On the surface, it seems to be a good idea. What goes around, comes around, but that will make the situation worse,” Thira wrote online Sunday. “Those who are in the dark will remain in the dark. The treatment of these people is necessary to cut the chain of infection. This is an investment for prevention.”
It remains unclear how the government can get away with charging infected Thais without running into legal challenges, since the state is required by the Constitution to provide free public health services to the people.
“A person shall have the right to receive public health services provided by the State,” Section 47 of the 2017 Constitution says. “An indigent person shall have the right to receive public health services provided by the State free of charge as provided by law.”
The same section also says, “A person shall have the right to the protection and eradication of harmful contagious diseases by the State free of charge as provided by law.”
Anutin often found himself in hot water by making controversial remarks, only to be forced to apologize later by public outrage.
Among some of the things said in public by the health minister – who has no background in medical field – include Western tourists should be kicked out of Thailand for not wearing face masks, Westerners pose more risk in the coronavirus pandemic because they “do not shower,” and frontline healthcare workers who caught the coronavirus should be punished.