Opinion: New COVID-19 Outbreak is a Test of Thailand’s Sanity

Administrative officials question migrant workers on their travel history in Nakhon Si Thammarat province on Dec. 26, 2020.

A week into the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, the government is trying hard to keep the public from freaking out. Over 1,300 new infections have been registered – in a country that recorded about 5,000 cases prior to Dec. 17.

The job fell to no less than Taweesin Wisanuyothin, the spokesman of the government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration. Taweesin was widely credited for instilling excessive fears among Thais regarding the peril of the pandemic over the past 10 months, through his near daily appearance on TV briefing the latest stats and figures to begin with.

On Friday, Taweesin acknowledges that people may have become too alarmed about the latest outbreak, however. Taweesin was asked if anything can be done by the COVID-19 center about growing refusal to accept goods, and not just shrimps, from Samut Sakhon province where the epicenter of the new outbreak emanated from its central shrimp market, by other Thai provinces.

“The state of panic is slightly excessive,” the charming Taweesin admitted, seemingly at wit’s ends, despite his medical training as a psychiatrist and uncanny abilities to mince so many words at the same time.

The spokesman added that the feeling of disdain, or avoidance or anything that has to do with Samut Sakhon has become “too strong” but was unable to offer any concrete solutions.

On Saturday, some members of the cabinet were instructed by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha to eat shrimps to restore confidence that one couldn’t possibly become infected with coronavirus by eating cooked shrimps and seafood.

That show of confidence took place on Saturday, at least a day too late for shrimp seller Chawalit Inchan, 31, who hanged himself in Sa Kaeo. Chawalit said in a video clip before his suicide that the business went bankrupt, and he could not pay back a loan of 60,000 baht.

“I can’t go on. If the next life is real, I will be back to return all the debts,” Chawalit said in the clip. No one has died from COVID-19 in the latest outbreak, but the shrimp seller appears to have become the first fatal collateral damage.

The phobia of seafood is now a rage all over Thailand and it comes with the fears and disdain against migrant workers from Myanamr who made the biggest chunk of those infected in Samut Sakhon province.

It’s the new equivalence of panic selling of stocks for many Thais. Not only do many avoid eating shrimps, some told me they fear that migrant workers from Myanmar could infect food or cooking utensils at eateries at restaurants they work for outside Samut Sakhon.

Before people freak out even more in the days and weeks ahead, please note that over 3 million Thais have already become unemployed since the pandemic began in the beginning of this year. And as we are entering a new year, the latest outbreak threatens to sink the kingdom further into economic ruins and unwarranted panic and paranoia.

Many nations on earth are doing far worse than Thailand in terms of the death toll caused by coronavirus. Thailand has just 60 deaths from COVID-19 since the outbreak began early this year. She is ranked at number 144 out of some 200 nations, or the top 25 percent with it comes to the lowest number of those infected and killed. Compare 60 deaths in Thailand to 69,625 in the United Kingdom, 62,268 deaths in France, 3,050 in Japan, or 9,062 in the Philippines and let that sink in.

This latest crisis is a challenge to Thais and members of society to rise above the challenges. We must not go berserk and prove that we can be better people in the face of the new bout of pandemic.

Let us start by being sympathetic and compassionate to fellow human beings – particularly the millions of migrant labourers from Myanmar, both documented and non-documented, in Samut Sakhon, Bangkok and beyond.

No one wants to become infected – this much should be clear. Blaming a particular group of ethnic or nationality will not help the situation and likely make matters worse. Do not push these lowest-paid migrant workers from Myanmar into the abyss.

Life as it was before coronavirus was hard enough a struggle for them and if anything, they deserve sympathy, protections and assistance from Thais who can afford to do so, instead of having some selfish employers dumping them on the street.

Fingers pointing at migrant workers would send them into unemployment and hiding. Do not disdain them or treat them as pariahs or pandemic when you see them at restaurants serving us food, cleaning office buildings and shopping malls, toilets and tending gardens.

If you find it difficult to be compassionate and only think about yourself or the Thai economy, please be reminded that without them the Thai economy will grind to a halt and pushing them further underground or out of work risks spreading the virus even further. Official records show Bangkok alone hosts at least 300,000 workers from Myanmar – not including those without documents.

Even Taweesin has been trying his best this week on television urging Thais to think of migrant workers from Myanmar as brothers and sisters “sharing the same fate.”

No matter how beautiful that may sound, the reality at the lockdown migrant workers’ apartments is the opposite. There, at the epicenter of the infections, 4,000 workers are in a lockdown. Around 800 plus among them have been tested positive, or roughly one in four are infected. The uninfected do not know who among them are infected as they are kept there for 14 days.

On Sunday, as the lockdown began, Taweesin himself defended the adoption of the ‘Singaporean Model’ by saying many of those infected are young, strong and asymptomatic and keeping them with other migrant workers in the lockdown buildings was the best way of handling the situation.

But is that humane? Imagine yourself being kept in a compound where many are known to be infected. This is not just a health risks but a mental torture that is utterly inhumane, so inhumane that no one should be subjected to such treatment that could cause lasting psychological damage.

As COVID-19 spread to 33 out of 76 provinces in Thailand by press time, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the pandemic could bring the best of our humanity, not make us lose our humanity. It’s up to us to decide and this can be achieved by remaining calm, rational and empathetic.