/Thailand was nailing coronavirus until they started to see a sudden spike. Here’s how they got caught out – ABC News

Thailand was nailing coronavirus until they started to see a sudden spike. Here’s how they got caught out – ABC News

As the end of 2020 approached, Thailand was in an enviable position.

As other nations confronted soaring coronavirus case numbers, the country had only 4,246 infections and just 60 deaths in a population of 70 million people.

Life had just about returned to normal. Thailand had even begun to welcome foreign tourists again after a two-week hotel quarantine stay.

Then, the week before Christmas, a 67-year-old vendor at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province, just outside Bangkok, tested positive to COVID-19 despite no overseas travel records.

It remains a mystery precisely where and from whom the vendor contracted COVID-19, but Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has pointed the finger at illegal immigrants from neighbouring Myanmar.

The outbreak did spread amongst the local, tight-knit migrant community — a large source of labour for Thailand’s seafood industry — but the World Health Organization (WHO) said there was no evidence it began there.

As questions remain over how exactly the outbreak started, new case numbers have ballooned to more than 7,000 across most of Thailand’s 77 provinces.

A group of people wearing masks sit on the back of a truck going down a street.

There have been another nine deaths, although half of those infected in the latest wave have now recovered and most people have not needed prolonged hospital treatment.

Even so, Thailand remains on edge.

Second wave ‘worse’ for businesses recovering from COVID-19

The second wave has hit business hard.

For 27 years, Natenapit Worasiri’s restaurant near the busy Khaosan Road tourist strip in Bangkok was a mecca for hungry foreigners wanting unusual Thai dishes.

But her business went “dead silent” when COVID-19 hit Thailand in January 2020 and international borders were shut.

A woman with black hair and wearing a denim jacket with a shirt smiles.

While she eventually recovered after a three-month, nationwide lockdown — by offering takeaway food and socially-distanced dining to lure in locals — everything changed again a month ago.

“The day I saw high infected numbers in Samut Sakhon I was serving food and customers showed me the numbers,” she told the ABC.

“I thought it was fake news, I was so shocked.”

Within days, Ms Worasiri’s business had dried up for the second time.

The Thai Government stopped short of implementing a second nationwide lockdown, but with many people too scared to leave home, the fallout has been the same.

“The first outbreak, my income went down more than 80 per cent, but this time was worse,” she said.

“Some days I got only two tables. It is lunchtime now, there are no customers or any bookings, and there are no orders for food delivery at all.”

Although there hasn’t been a nationwide lockdown, individual provinces have ordered the closure of schools, gyms, entertainment venues and some markets.

Restaurants and shops have been instructed to reduce their hours, travel between provinces has also been discouraged and people have been asked to work from home.

Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak

The country has been divided into three zones — red, amber and green.

“Red zones,” such as Samut Sakhon and Bangkok, have the tightest restrictions, with field hospitals being set up in those areas.

Residents in amber and green zones face less arduous rules.

A woman with black hair wearing a denim jacket and black pants stands in front of a restaurant on a street.

Ms Worasiri, 55, has had to dip into her savings to stay open and isn’t sure how much longer she can keep going.

“Honestly speaking, it is frustrating, very frustrating because everything was getting better,” she said.

“The economy started to recover, people started to come out to spend money, then this [second outbreak] happened.”

Can Thailand get control of second wave?

Dr Richard Brown, program manager for health emergencies at the WHO in Thailand, told the ABC he was confident Thailand was managing the new outbreak effectively.

“Because Thailand has this experience that they have built up in successfully controlling the COVID pandemic to date, what they will be able to do is leverage this experience,” Dr Brown said.

He added that after Thailand had “re-established control” after its first wave of infections, it became one of the first countries in the world to carry out an assessment of how the health system responded to COVID-19.

“It involved looking critically at the different technical and policy areas,” Dr Brown said.

“Both to identify things that had gone well, so-called lessons learned, but also to look at areas where there was scope for improvement.”

Dr Brown said the review led to a number of recommendations, which are being implemented and have helped in the current response.

He has suggested it might be something other countries should consider doing as well.

“[Thailand] have strong surveillance, enormous capacity to respond through their rapid response teams and a network of more than a million village health volunteers,” he said.

“[They also have] a good set-up with emergency operation centres, and excellent capacities for communications.”

The number of infections in this second wave is higher than the first, but the Thai Government says the situation is starting to stabilise with fewer than 300 new cases a day.

“The analysis conducted by the health ministry now suggests that the current wave of COVID may likely slow down within two weeks,” government spokesperson Natapanu Nopakun said this week.

“Now, the numbers cannot always be trusted. But if the numbers are lower each day, and if this trend continues, most likely we will have a slowdown of this outbreak by the end of January, hopefully.”

Some Thai residents less optimistic this time

Thai boxing instructor Chavalit Thepseeda, whose work dried up during both waves, is not as optimistic.

A man with black hair and wearing glasses stands smiling in front of a tree with his arms folded

“This time I think the control of the outbreak is not as good as the first time as there are high numbers [of new cases] every day,” the 30-year-old told the ABC.

“The first one they managed it better. There was a lockdown and they did not allow people abroad to come into Thailand.”

However, he says this time, the Government has “left us to protect ourselves”.

“I think the Government did too little proactive testing,” he said.

“Some people in Bangkok in the high-risk area haven’t had the test, and if they want to test they have to pay for it themselves.”

Mr Thepseeda supports lockdowns to control the virus even though they have meant financial hardship for him.

“All fitness [centres] have to be closed during COVID so I lose all that income and it affects me because my main income comes from boxing training,” he said.

“The students who trained with me [in Bangkok] totally stopped training, because they live in the red zone.

“If I go to their house for private training, their neighbours will not be happy.”

To make ends meet, Mr Thepseeda has picked up two other jobs — one driving a motorbike delivering takeaway food and another doing administration work in a hospital.

This week, the cabinet approved several economic relief measures including cash handouts for those most in need and reduced electricity and water bills for households and small businesses.

It also negotiated with mobile phone service providers to waive data usage costs for people using the official mobile phone application to help with contact tracing.

Thailand is due to receive 200,000 doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine in February and has ordered 2 million doses in total.

The country has also signed a deal for 61 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be produced locally by Siam Bioscience.

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