When Trying to Prevent COVID-19 Panic Causes More Panic

Health workers administer shots of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Central Vaccination Center in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, July 15, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

In times of public health emergencies and economic crises the truth needs to be told. The public needs to be able to speak freely without fear, be informed, articulate, criticize and hold the government accountable. The regime of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha is fostering the opposite, however.

As part of the 14-day curfew and semi-lockdown introduced earlier this week, the government issued an order under its emergency power to criminalize distortion of news and information that cause misunderstanding in the emergency situation, panic or affect state security, order and good morals of the public. This will last 14 days to begin with. Violators face a possible maximum imprisonment term of two year and/or fine of up to 40,000 baht.

Draconian emergency orders muzzling people and the media will in fact ensure the opposite and people will have less confidence in the government’s already appalling and incompetent handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the economy with new daily infections hovering just under 10,000 people and daily deaths from 60 to more than 90. Today, the figures even went through the psychological barrier with over one hundred deaths at 141 and over ten thousand infections at 10,080 since the outbreak began a year and a half ago.

Thailand has libel laws and I see no reason why the government would want to restrict press freedom and freedom of expression further unless they have something to hide or regard people as being so unintelligent as to be unable to differentiate fake news from real news, fake democracy from real democracy.

On another front, the crisis demands more transparency and not less. It took an MP from Move Forward Party, Wiroj Lakkana-adisorn, to secure a heavily redacted Oxford-Astrazeneca contract by using rights under the Information Act. Crucial information such as the price, amounts of doses ordered and delivery time could not be seen. That was Monday. The agreement paper could have been made public last year. Fast forward to Thursday, Deputy Public Health Minister Sathit Pitutecha announced that the delivery of the main COVID-19 vaccines, which is 61 million doses of AstraZeneca, will be delayed by up to six months and reduced by half per month for many months from now.

Just last month the same man assured us that all is well, that we will get all the 61 million doses by the end of the year. Thailand expects 10 million doses per month from now until November but the same man now said on Thursday it will most likely be halved and all the 61 million doses may have to wait until next May for it to be delivered. And there was no agreed penalty clause. 

When did the deputy public health minister learn about this? How could the government get itself into such a contract? Why did it bet on one horse and allowed one Thai company, Siam Bioscience, with the crown as the majority shareholder be in charge of producing AstraZeneca in Thailand? 

I looked into the contract agreement and part of it states: “AstraZeneca shall notify the Purchaser’s Project Manager at least (redacted) prior to such time that AstraZeneca expects doses to be available. Such notification shall include an estimate of the total number of doses expected to be available for delivery and the expected dates that such doses will be available to be shipped to a single distribution hub…”

The section of funding and invoicing has also been totally redacted. 

This lack of transparency is causing real panic among members of the public now. Yes, the truth about how inept the Prayut administration is once revealed truly causes panic as only about 10 per cent of the populations have received their first jab.

On Thursday I watched a TV news programme and there were reports that oxygen tanks, a much needed item for those who couldn’t breath due to COVID-19 lung infections and could secure a hospital bed, are sold out at some medical equipment shops in Bangkok.

Now, should the station be charged and the reporter imprisoned for causing me and others to panic?

It was reported on Friday that the government’s Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration has “invited” TV stations editors to meet on Sunday afternoon to discuss the direction of news coverage. Later on Friday night, exercising COVID-19 emergency power, the protest and public gathering has been banned, subject to maximum two years imprisonment term and/or fines of up to 40,000 baht. This ban came less than 24 hours before the anti-government and monarchy-reform protest movement will demonstrate in a bid to oust Prayut for his failure in handling coronavirus outbreak.

Well, if the government cannot control COVID-19, they might as well try to control the people so they can continue to be in power instead.