PM Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures at the media during his inspection visit to Suvarnabhumi Airport on Jan. 29, 2020.

While Thai health professionals have won worldwide praise for their success in treating coronavirus patients, our politicians may need a serious lesson in managing national crisis.

Think about how health minister Anutin Charnvirakul first tried to downplay the deadly virus as “just another flu” in the early days of the outbreak. He also said there was no need to screen tourists from other Chinese cities other than Wuhan, only to go back on his word a few days later after a public outcry.

And even though Thai officials like to recite the feel-good slogan of “Thailand and China, one family” (中泰一家亲), the country had to wait for over a week before it could evacuate Thai citizens stranded in the locked down city of Wuhan.

Around two dozen countries managed to retrieve their citizens before our government could finally get our people back on Tuesday. Without a generous offer from AirAsia to supply the flight for free, a hundred forty Thais would likely have to wait even longer.

By the time the plane arrived in Wuhan on Tuesday, two Thais had high fever and were not allowed to leave the city. One couldn’t help but wonder if the government had acted faster, those two might have been home by now.

Anutin also tried a PR stunt by pledging to escort the evac team to Wuhan personally, a promise he later withdrew. The result should have been easily predictable, since the presence of him would have caused even more arrangements for Chinese authorities to deal with.

That’s not to mention what if Anutin became infected as a result of his trip to Wuhan or had to spend weeks in quarantine. How would the Ministry of Public Health function without its head? How embarrassing would that be?

And just as PM Prayut Chan-o-cha scolded the media for reporting shortages of face masks, the reality outside Government House was unfolding in an opposite direction.

Face masks quickly ran out. Those that remain on sales became a luxury. Although the government did scramble to place a price control over those masks and other sanitation items, the effort was weeks behind.

My own attempts to secure one during my futile shopping trip was met with either a “Sold Out” sign or an outrageously expensive price tag.

Sinophobia?

Now let’s move on to another issue that deserves an earnest discussion: China-bashing.

Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, some Thais – and expats – have already become increasingly anxious and suspicious by the growing influence of China in the kingdom.

The causes of alarm range from growing business clout and “Chinese tourists everywhere!” to the environmental impacts from Chinese-built dams on the Mekong River, where livelihoods of millions of Thais and Laotians depend on.

There were even doubts over the allegiance of Bangkok-based multinational corporations like CP Group, who has a massive business stake in China.

Some netizens also saw a conspiracy theory when Government House decorated its gate and fence with Chinese red lanterns to welcome the Chinese Lunar New Year – a practice adopted by PM Prayut in 2018.

And when the coronavirus outbreak struck Thailand, there was online furor over photos of what appeared to be Chinese tourists carrying cartons of face masks from Thailand back home, just as the Thais are living with the shortage.

Image: CM108

This came on top of Thai government’s insistence that there will be no travel ban on Chinese from entering or leaving the country, leading some to fear that this could make the kingdom more vulnerable to the virus.

On social media, China-bashing intensified over the past week as infection spread to two dozen countries around the world.

“When are we gonna protest to chase out the [Thai] government which is more considerate towards China than Thailand?” political activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, himself a Thai-Chinese, asked his followers on Facebook earlier this week.

Graffiti artist Headache Stencil went further and put up a picture of Thai map on a wall painted in red with Chinese stars.

“We are Thai people, second class citizens lower than Chinese citizens,” the viral post said. “If we’re gonna kiss their ass this much, I hope they send us a trickle of water down the Mekong. Thank you, Emperor Xi.”

These are worrying signs for the future of Sino-Thai relations. China will have to be careful in its approaches, or risk being demonized by the local population. Thais also have to be aware that China, if handled with tact, can be a good friend to our country.

It won’t be easy, however, because there are Thais who opt to view China as the “new” foreign imperialist enemy.

But if history has taught us anything in dealing with the French, the British, the Americans, the Burmese and the Vietnamese in the difficult era of colonialism a century ago, it is that it’s better to have a constructive relationship with foreign powers than just demonize them outright.

For this, Prayut was right when he said Thailand and China are not aiming for a short-term relationship. The simmering fear and even loathing of China won’t just go away with the virus months from now. It will pose a challenge for Thailand in the years ahead, if not beyond.