Since it first appeared in late December in the city of Wuhan in central Hubei province, the 2019-nCoV coronavirus has hardly been out of the news, rapidly spreading to the rest of China and 26 other countries including Thailand where 19 persons were infected – the largest number outside China. Here too, the first human-to-human transmission was recently detected in a Bangkok cabbie who has never been to China.
Many people have become frustrated at the Thai government’s “slow” response and lashed out at government officials to the point where, at one stage, Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul seemed to lose it.
After being slammed by social media users, the minister posted on his personal Facebook page: “flights from Wuhan were cancelled, airports have installed thermo scans at the gate for such flight …. what in heaven’s sake would you have us do?!”
When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha faced reporters’ questions about aid to Thai students in the Chinese city who wanted to come home, he either replied that none had expressed such a wish or that a plane had been prepared for nearly a month. Later the premier addressed the nation saying that a plane would be sent as soon as the Chinese government gave permission.
Even after China officially declared the virus could be transmitted human to human on January 20 and then two days later put Wuhan City on a lockdown, the Thai government remained quieter than it should have been.
After all. the Wuhan Lockdown signified the situation was worsening and the virus was spreading to other Chinese cities and other countries and Thailand is among the key destinations of Chinese tourists during the Lunar New Year holidays – many of them Wuhan residents who had left China before the lockdown.
With Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Krabi deemed at risk, the Thai government measures focused on the disease control checkpoints’ thermo scanning of passengers but didn’t monitor or issue any order about Chinese tour groups, many of which could still be seen at that time at hotels and attractions and whose members were coming into close contact with tour guides and transport drivers.
During the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH)’s daily update on 2019-nCoV coronavirus on Saturday (February 1), the Department of Disease Control (DDC) deputy chief Dr Thanarak Palitpat insisted that the Thai measures were sufficiently strict but admitted the risk of infection in Thailand would remain as long as tourists were coming into the country, especially from China. “If and when we don’t get good cooperation from the tourists, I believe the country’s administrators will have to adjust the disease control measures,” he said.
At first, Thailand named the MOPH as the main agency to handle the virus situation but when the number of infections in Thailand rose to eight and China on reported nearly 3,000 infections and 80 deaths on January 27, more Thai state agencies were integrated in the efforts.
Early last week, representatives from the MOPH, Ministry of Tourism and Sport and Ministry of Transport as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs met to discuss a range of actions including the evacuation of Thais from Wuhan and Hubei.
Even though the virus problem involved various agencies and should logically be overseen by the Prime Minister or, at the very least, a deputy Prime Minister in order to facilitate cross-agency orders, the Thai government instead opted to assign a committee made up of public health ministry personnel to oversee the handling of the virus. They named Dr Sopon Iamsirithaworn, director of the Bureau of General Communicable Diseases at the DDC as the team leader and put Dr Thanarak in charge of the Emergency Operation Centre, which is under the directive of Public Health permanent secretary Dr Sukhum Kanchanapimai.
It was only at the end of January that a national committee chaired by a deputy prime minister was appointed to handle the newly emerging disease, around the same time that a Bangkok taxi driver was confirmed as country’s first case of human-to-human transmission and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the infection as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
But even with this latest move, many people are still wondering if they can have faith in the Thai government’s leadership, especially now that the United States, Singapore and other countries have banned travellers coming from China.
The United States ban does however exempt travellers who are American citizens or have relatives who are American citizens and will impose from today (February 2) a requirement for those Americans coming from Hubei since mid-January to be kept in quarantine for up to 14 days and for Americans coming from elsewhere in China to undergo physical exams, avoid crowds, and refrain from going out for 14 days as a precaution. Various airlines including Delta have cancelled flights to and from China until late April.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a federal quarantine order for all 195 people who were evacuated on a government-chartered flight from China and are now being voluntarily quarantined for 14 days at a military base in California.
National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director Dr Nancy Messonnier was quoted by ABC news as noting that the US authorities were preparing as if this was the next pandemic and said that, if strong measures were in place, the US authorities would be able to blunt the impact of the virus on the US soil. “We would rather be remembered for overreacting than under-reacting,” she said.
Looking at our Asean neighbors: the Philippines has just suspended the visa on arrival for Chinese tourists, while Malaysia stopped giving visas in all channels to Chinese nationals from Wuhan and Hubei since January 27 “until the situation returns to normal”. Since Saturday (February 1), Singapore has denied access to the Chinese and those who had been in China in the past 14 days as a precaution against the virus.
Thailand still isn’t daring to cancel the visa on arrival for Chinese tourists, with the government claiming the number of Chinese tourists has already dropped by 80 per cent during this period.
This apparent lack of a firm system coupled with the reluctance to make a timely decision or make a decision at all as well as the poor level communication by government executives especially Prayut to the public in the wake of what is an obvious crisis are dimming the shine of Thai government leadership and could well make the situation worse.