Some Thais have found new scapegoats to demonize in coronavirus-Thailand – fellow Thais who returned from abroad.
They are the new pariahs, accused of importing and spreading coronavirus to the kingdom, deliberately or not. And the past week has been rather ugly and disgraceful for Thailand.
Last weekend, many local media and social media users turned toward vigilantism and posted the names and contact numbers of 158 Thais who returned from abroad but left Suvarnabhumi Airport without being put under state quarantine for 14 days.
The quarantine is parts of the latest government measures to contain the spread of the virus.
The Thai returnees who landed home on the night of April 3 were originally supposed to be taken to be quarantined by the state. After more than five hours of being stuck at the airport without knowing what’s next, they got upset and unruly. Under pressure, a major general who heads the government team at the airport relented and decided to let them leave the airport for homes.
The press claimed these people fled and within hours, a long list of all of the passengers with their contact details was posted online. The online witch hunt began, followed by the government’s demand that these people have to report themselves for 14-day state quarantine by 6pm of last Saturday evening. All of them eventually did, willingly or not.
These 158 Thais have been branded as irresponsible, a threat to not just public health but the public. Online vigilante brigade supports the government’s airport lockdown which since then extended to until April 18.
This led to dozens of Thais being stranded at airports in Tokyo, Amsterdam and Doha, putting themselves at higher risk of being infected.
Others who have yet made their way to airports are stranded abroad in countries across the world despite them having all the rights as Thai citizens to return to their home country.
The number of Thais wanting to return homes but told to wait until after April 18 is over 10,000 according to the government. Meanwhile, European embassies in Bangkok with much higher infections and fatalities have been busy getting social chartered flights to return homes as Thais abroad wait forlorn.
Coronavirus-phobia, or COVID19-phobia, rears its ugly head with the stigmatization of people who are suspected of being at high risk of infection as have never seen in Thailand since the early years of the spread of HIV AIDS decades ago.
Now anyone suspected of being at high risk of coronavirus infection, be it Thais who recently returned from abroad or stranded foreign tourists in Thailand are treated with not just fear and contempt but hatred. Ironically, this could lead to pushing them underground thus causing more infections.
Even at the same time some Thais fear tourists will spread the virus, the authorities until very recently subjected foreigners living in Thailand to a surreal visa extension ritual.
Throngs of foreign tourists densely queuing in places including Chonburi, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan for visa extensions became a common sight, thus risking mass infection when the government could have just offered automatic visa extensions without putting anyone at risk.
This is not just dumb but a disgrace to Thailand. It took the government until Wednesday afternoon to issue a blanket visa extension to these people, including migrant workers.
But thousands have unfortunately already been put at risks as a result of the government’s delay.
This is a far cry from the image of Thailand as a tourist paradise that successive governments and the public have worked so hard to earn over the decades to make not just Phuket but Bangkok, Chiang Mai among the world’s top tourist destinations.
Last month, local media also reported a nurse in Bangkok complained that she received disturbing looks by others while wearing her uniform and buying food at local markets. For some, medical professionals are not seen as people who sacrifice for the public but potential virus carriers.
Thais need to tone down their anti-coronavirus-hysteria before it gets out of hand, before it will leave deep marks of discrimination and division in society.
It’s time to talk about bigotry, coronavirus-induced mass hysteria and not just how to properly wear sanitary masks or wash our hands.
Thousands more are expected to be infected in the months ahead and no one is expecting any vaccine earlier than by the end of the year. Thais will have to learn to live with not just infected people but those deemed at risk without becoming hysterical and discriminatory.