Opinion: We’ve Had Enough of COVID Confusion From Gov’t

PM Prayut Chan-o-cha visits a state-run coronavirus quarantine facility in Bangkok on April 12, 2020.

Confusion, confusion and more confusions can be expected if the government doesn’t learn from this week.

As the government tries to contain the second outbreak of coronavirus, new regulations were passed, then hours later repeal, rescinded or reversed, again and again. Examples over the past week include whether parts of Thailand will be in a lockdown, whether on-site dining at restaurants in Bangkok ends at 7pm and whether the government’s tracking App is mandatory.

Do not ask me whether one can still travel from Bangkok to Chon Buri, both red-zones which means highly infected areas and restricted, without a government permit. Don’t ask me how long fitness gyms will be closed or how much longer can you buy booze legally. Things seem to be changing with little notice within hours and there’s no point trying to write a definitive rule that could be reversed in just a few hours.

What I am more interested in this column is to try to understand and explain all the confusions. Basically, it boils down to a few factors.

Let’s start from a positive explanation. The government of Gen Prayut Chan-ocha is basically like a cook trying to balance the various tastes to come up with the best dish. In this case as Prayut said himself earlier this week, he’s trying to strike a balance between protecting public health and the economy.

Let’s face it, the government cannot keep on borrowing money with no end and avoid the economy sinking into the abyss. Last year was already a painful period and if anything, Prayut must have learned that you cannot save people if you push more into unemployment and destitution.

So instead of a nation-wide lockdown that would lead to massive state compensation for workers affected, the government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin said on Sunday that they won’t even use the word lockdown because by doing so “there must be some [state] compensations”.

Like fuzzy logic, Prayut is trying to strike a balance. Bear with him and his men while they try to figure out how much non-lockdown lockdown is too much or too little.

On Thursday when Taweesin said live on TV during his daily update that coronavirus patients who were found without virus tracking application would be prosecuted, it didn’t take long before he reversed the course.

It took a few hours of public outcry by netizens, civil rights and privacy activists before he did a U-turn. Taweesin and the government apparently realized it was too much and the public won’t put up with it and on Friday, he apologized on TV.

Well, even if one gives the best benefit of the doubt to Prayut and his men, one hopes they could have communicated better among themselves and be more sincere before issuing the latest order. Take dine-in restriction time for example.

Why did Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang on Monday noon wasted his time and face ordering all restaurants not to allow dine from 7pm to 6am only to see Prayut repealing it within hours before it even came into effect and extended it to 9pm to 6am instead?

This clearly shows a lack of communication and coordination among various key figures in charge.

The dine-in case shows that Prayut, despite trying to relegate authorities to all governors to decide how best to control the outbreak, with nearly 10,000 accumulated infections as of this weekend, still clings to power and reverse decisions by others whom he relegated powers if he disagrees.

Decentralization is easier said than done for Prayut, a former junta leader, as he overrides the order of the Bangkok governor.

Yes, I personally think that dine-in restrictions from 9pm makes more sense and I was told by Taniwan Koommongkon, president of Thai Restaurant Association on Wednesday that the association desperately warned the prime minister of the dire economic consequences after learning about the Bangkok governor’s decision.

I wish the three could have just held a Zoom conference for 5 minutes before the government would make the public more confused as they are in fear enough with the second pandemic outbreak.

Taniwan told me that Aswin could have rang her up. And as Wednesday, after the governor’s order was overridden, City Hall didn’t even bother to contact her to discuss the best way to balance public health and the economy going forward.

Hopefully there will be less U-turn, more coordination, more listening, sincerity and less confusions.

A week of confusion should suffice. The public deserve better.