After months of calm, Thailand is struggling with virus outbreaks

BANGKOK (AP) – After succeeding against the odds of keeping the coronavirus largely for most of the year, Thailand has suddenly found itself challenged by a growing outbreak among migrant workers on the threshold of Bangkok, the capital.

The rise in cases in Samut Sakhon province threatens to undo months of attempts to curb the virus and accelerate the recovery of Thailand’s diseased economy.

To try to slow the spread of the virus by isolating infected patients, the army and navy have been ordered by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to help set up a 1,000-bed field hospital in the province, Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantrawanit said Wednesday. It should be placed as close as possible to where most patients are already to reduce the risk of transmission by transporting them elsewhere, he said.

Cases related to the outbreak have already been reported in more than a dozen other provinces, including Bangkok. Officials in the capital ordered that existing security measures, such as social distancing, masking and control of fever, be more strictly observed in markets, temples, parks and amusement parks. The city’s more than 700 state schools and nurseries have been ordered closed for 12 days starting Thursday.

Contact tracking has found suspicious cases for testing as well as areas to be disinfected. In a shopping mall in central Bangkok’s popular shopping area Siam Square, three stores were closed by a Thai woman who tested positive for coronavirus temporarily for deep cleaning, as well as a dish in the nearby MBK mall.

The new wave of coronavirus cases abroad already means that Thailand’s economic recovery will be slowed down as the global economy takes longer to recover, Prayuth said in a televised address on Tuesday night.

“What we have seen now is that being too relaxed with COVID precautions can lead to greater financial suffering,” he said.

Prayuth said the situation means that Thailand must proceed cautiously as it eases the rules for receiving visitors from other countries – an approach that could hinder attempts to revive the country’s lucrative tourism industry, whose operations dried up after Thailand initially closed regular passenger flights from abroad. of April.

Just before the latest outbreak was found last week, a new expanded list of countries whose tourists would enter under strict restrictions was issued, and the idea of ​​shortening a mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival was discussed.

Thailand’s 576 new cases of coronavirus were reported on Sunday – an increase of 13% compared to the previous total of 4,907 – was the country’s largest daily increase. For months, almost all the cases detected were in people who were already in quarantine after arriving from abroad.

More cases since Sunday have forced Thailand’s total to 5762. Virtually all were migrant workers in Samut Sakhon or otherwise linked to a large seafood market in the province. Health officials said 44% of migrant workers and people with direct links to the market who have been tested so far were found to be infected, although most showed no symptoms.

The seafood market was closed over the weekend, and other local restrictions were imposed, including a curfew, a ban on travel from the province and the closure of many public places. Late on Tuesday night, two neighboring provinces also introduced lock-in measures, including a ban on New Year’s celebrations. The seaside resort of Pattaya also suspended plans for public celebrations.

On Wednesday, the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration declared 23 provinces – almost a third of the total – to be high risks based on suppliers who identified where their major customers came from.

Although cases related to the seafood market have spread across the country, Prayuth expressed confidence that Thailand “may continue to be among the least affected countries in the world by this terrible disease.”

The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedro’s Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised Thailand’s handling of its coronavirus crisis several times, quoting in a tweet in September: “The whole community and the entire government’s response, extensive testing, contact tracking, community involvement and nationwide mobilization of community #healthworkers. ”

Prayuth’s declaration in March of a state of emergency allowed his government to also implement measures ranging from lockdown and censorship to making the mask wearing mandatory and banning the sale of alcohol to fight the virus.

The chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, Supan Mongkolsuthree, said that due to the new outbreak, Samut Sakhon’s industrial sector was facing an estimated loss of about 1 billion baht ($ 33.1 million) per day.

Supan said the federation opposes lock-in measures in other areas because the problem was localized and the government could contain it.

Thai Union Group and Charoen Pokphand Foods, both large seafood producers with operations in Samut Sakhon, said they expect little or no disruption to their supply chains.

The origin of the latest outbreak is not yet clear, but virtually all new cases involve migrant workers from Thailand’s neighbor Myanmar working in the shellfish industry.

Migrant labor with low wages drives much of Thailand’s economy, from factories to fishing and construction. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labor, there are more than 233,000 documented migrant workers in Samut Sakhon in addition to an unknown number working illegally. There are an estimated 4 to 5 million foreign workers in Thailand, according to the UN-affiliated international organization for migration.

Despite efforts to regulate their status, many migrant workers are brought to Thailand by traffickers and then forced to work under close slavery for small businesses, as a 2015 study by the Associated Press was found when looking into some of the hundreds of shrimp shelling houses hidden in the view of residential streets or behind signs without signs in Samut Sakhon.

The origin of the workers in Myanmar has already led to finger-pointing over the current outbreak, since a coronavirus outbreak that began in August in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine spread to the commercial capital Yangon and then further east to the Thai border.

Thai authorities tried to restrict cross-border traffic, but the border is notoriously porous. In early December, cases originating in Myanmar in northern Thailand were found. They were Thais who had returned from stays in Myanmar and escaped border controls that would have forced them into quarantine. At least two flew south to Bangkok before they could be traced.

Still, a segment of popular opinion accuses migrant workers who are alleged to be sneaking into Thailand of the new outbreak.

“The latest outbreak of infections in Samut Sakhon is mainly due to such illegal immigrants,” Prime Minister Prayuth said on Tuesday without providing evidence. On Wednesday, he ordered the military to intensify patrols to detect illegal border crossings and demanded investigations into corrupt officials who could help the criminal networks that carry out human trafficking.

Activists for migrant workers frame the situation differently and point out that two other countries in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Malaysia, have also had major outbreaks among migrant workers.

“Migrant workers across Asia continue to be at high risk of coming into contact with and spreading COVID-19 due to their inability to exercise social distancing both in their labor-intensive workplaces and in their cramped and often unhealthy housing,” said Andy Hall. , a migrant worker. rights specialist working all over Asia.