Opinion: Thai Govt and Public Need to Handle Coronavirus Better

A file photo of health minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

The ongoing spread of coronavirus is a test to not just the Thai government’s abilities and competence, but the mentality of some Thai people as well.

While the outbreak in Thailand is far from the worst, these past few days saw the government stumbling, mishandling, and backtracking on at least two matters. This doesn’t bode well, and they have to get their act together quickly to minimize the confusion.

The first mishap was Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s unexplained U-turn on his decision to require people arriving from nine countries and territories to be placed in a self-quarantine for 14 days.

The signed order was posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday, and it was soon picked up by international media sites like CNN. The list of countries and territories include not just China, Japan, South Korea, Italy but also France and Germany; the latter is where a very high ranking figure spends his holiday.

Hours later, the order disappeared, and his Facebook page became inaccessible. Anutin himself failed to provide any reasonable explanation. He merely said on Wednesday his son wants him to take a rest and he claimed he didn’t know how the order landed on his own Facebook page.

But damages have been done – one can only imagine how many flights were cancelled in the confusion – and we deserve to know why. Was Anutin high when the post was made?

As if that weren’t enough for the Thai government, the regime also bungled the unexpected arrivals of undocumented Thai workers fleeing the virus from South Korea.

At first, Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters on Tuesday he had no power to quarantine these people. But just hours after more than 150 workers returned to Thailand, PM Gen Prayut Chan-ocha said some of them would be quarantined after all.

Can these ministers have a meeting before deciding government policies?

Back to the undocumented Thai workers. Hundreds have arrived over the weeks and a thousand more will likely return to Thailand in the days ahead. Government officials on Friday said they have yet to finalize the location for their quarantine. In the meantime, they are asked to quarantine themselves at their homes.

But the measure also raises a question: if these Thais returning from South Korea are forced into quarantine, why are South Koreans traveling to Thailand not treated the same way? A February record shows that over 58,000 South Koreans visited Thailand in that month alone.

The public’s sympathy for fellow Thais is also being tested. Some posted on social media that they do not want the government to take back those undocumented workers, known by internet slang as “Little Ghosts.” There is a genuine fear that the workers may end up spreading the infection.

But where else can they go? They have every right to return to their homeland.

Yes, these Thais went to South Korea for illegal employment, and we cannot condone their violation of Korean laws regardless of their rationale or economic background. But we should at least be humane and sympathetic to their predicament.

After all, they are not just Thais, but fellow humans. Although they are lawbreakers who might have tarnished Thailand’s reputations, they definitely have no intention to be caught in the epidemic.

We must do whatever we can to ensure their safe return to Thailand, while at the same time demanding a coherent and transparent action from our government in this matter.