The end of the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight, yet the New Normal of lives and politics in Thailand is already here.
Curfew, emergency decree, shutdown order, state-run quarantine, booze ban, a limit on the number of Thais allowed to return home from overseas, you name it. They’ve been going on for a month now – with no end promised.
The New Normal is set to continue for a while; Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha suggested earlier this week that the officials are in no rush to reopen businesses, lift curfew, or end emergency rule by the end of this month, contrary to online speculation.
As the crisis continues, it’s imperative that people who cherish freedom, human rights and democracy stay alert. They cannot sleepwalk and follow whatever they are being told to do by the state without giving it a critical thought.
For the record, I do not think news about people dying of COVID-19 is fake. I am not a coronavirus denier. Death and infections are very real, and we should do whatever we can to prevent, or at least reduce, additional deaths and infections in weeks and months ahead.
But consider this fact also: the past week saw the official number of daily new infections hitting a new low, down to just 13 on Thursday.
This improvement came just as several people have allegedly committed suicide due to economic destitution, as a result of the partial economic lockdown.
The power of persuasion is another avenue in fostering the New Normal. Many have become enamored of – if not addicted to – the daily briefing by Taweesin Visanuyothin, spokesman of the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration.
Taweesin, a psychiatrist by trade, can be very persuasive and comely in speech. However, he was criticized by some academics like Thammasat University sociologist Anusorn Unno for using military analogies, such as calling doctors fighting the virus “soldiers in white gowns.”
Last week, the dapper Taweesin warned that poor people lining up for food relief given by a do-gooder outside Don Mueang Temple could end up having to be fed via nasogastric tube instead because they failed to observe social distancing.
And on Wednesday, as the call for reopening businesses gathered momentum, Taweesin said it’s more important for people to save their own lives than thinking about economic survival. The government has apparently found a new spokesman more effective than any they had in the past.
So while the debate continues as to how much longer Thailand should be in this restrictive state to avoid calamity, it’s important for us to ensure we do not get too comfortable with the New Normal. We must question how necessary these measures will be in the coming weeks.
As the emergency rule is set to continue beyond April, some people have begun to question its necessity and call for the restrictions to be lifted. We need to strike a balance. Sadly, abuse of power under the emergency decree is not unheard of.
On Monday, a woman handing out free food near Hualamphong Train Station was charged and sent to court on the allegation that she violated social distancing measures and posed a health risk. It’s worth asking whether the police should have given her a warning instead of slapping her with the charge, which carries a two-year jail sentence.
In Chiang Mai, at least two homeless people were arrested for not staying indoor during the curfew. How do you go home when there’s no home?
And while the government appears to be reluctant in handing out financial aid to those who need it during the pandemic, the army had the bright idea of asking the government to pay 4.5 billion baht for new armored vehicles from the United States.
The army chief eventually backed down after the deal was criticized by half a million tweets in less than 24 hours.
It’s clear that we cannot allow the government to rule us under the New Normal without questioning it and holding those in power accountable.
The last thing Thailand needs, after suffering for five years under a military dictatorship, is a New Normal that would spell the death of democracy, rights and freedom, and infect us with authoritarian culture instead.
Emergency rule for a while – yes. Authoritarian rule forever – no. Never.