After months of calm, Thailand challenged by virus outbreak

Grant Peck & Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand, which has kept the coronavirus largely in check for most of the year, is facing a challenge from a large outbreak of the virus among migrant workers in a province close to Bangkok.

The surge of cases in Samut Sakhon province threatens to undo months of efforts to contain the virus and hasten recovery of an ailing economy.

Cases related to the outbreak have already been found in more than a dozen other provinces, including Bangkok. Officials in the capital city ordered existing safety measures, such as social distancing, mask wearing and checking for fevers, to be more strictly observed at markets, temples, parks and entertainment venues.

Contact tracing has already found suspected cases for testing as well as areas to be disinfected. At a mall in central Bangkok’s popular Siam Square shopping area, three shops visited by a Thai woman who tested positive were temporarily closed for deep cleaning, as was a food court at the nearby MBK mall.

The new wave of coronavirus cases abroad already means Thailand’s economic rebound will be slowed as the world economy will take longer to recover, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said in a televised speech on Tuesday evening.

A health worker in protective clothing collects nasal swab sample from a man to test for COVID-19 in Samut Sakhon, South of Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A vendor wearing a face covering sells fish from a pushcart outside a produce market in central Bangkok; and people stand on lines to get COVID-19 tests in Samut Sakhon

He said the situation means Thailand must tread carefully as it relaxes rules for admitting visitors from other countries — an approach that could hinder efforts to revive the country’s lucrative tourism industry, whose business dried up after the country closed to regular passenger flights from overseas in early April.

Shortly before the latest outbreak was found last week, a new expanded list of countries whose tourists would be allowed in under tight restrictions was issued, and the idea of shortening a mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival was under discussion.

The 576 new cases of the coronavirus reported last Sunday — a 13 per cent increase to Thailand’s previous overall total of 4,907 — was the country’s biggest daily spike. For months, nearly all of the cases detected were in people already in quarantine after arriving from abroad.

More new cases reported on Monday and on Tuesday have pushed Thailand’s total to 5,716. Virtually all were migrant workers in Samut Sakhon or otherwise linked to a big seafood market in the province where the first of the recent cases was discovered. Most did not display symptoms.

The seafood market was sealed off over the weekend, and other local restrictions were imposed, including a night curfew, the banning of travel out of the province and the closing of many public places.

On Tuesday night, two neighbouring provinces also imposed lockdown measures, including bans on New Year’s celebrations. The seaside resort city of Pattaya also cancelled plans for public celebrations. Even though cases related to the seafood market have spread around the country, Prayuth expressed confidence Thailand “can continue to be among the least affected countries in the world by this terrible disease”.

World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has several times praised Thailand’s handling of its coronavirus crisis, citing in a September tweet “A whole of society and whole of government response, extensive testing, contact tracing, community engagement, and nationwide mobilisation of community #healthworkers”.

Prayuth’s declaration in March of a state of emergency allowed his government also to implement measures ranging from lockdowns and censorship to making mask wearing mandatory 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 estimated losses of around THB1 billion (USD33.1 million) per day.

Supan said the federation opposes lockdown measures in other areas, because the problem was localised and the government could contain it. Thai Union Group and Charoen Pokphand Foods, both major 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 the new cases involve migrant workers from Thailand’s neighbour Myanmar working in the seafood industry. Low-wage migrant labour powers much of Thailand’s economy, from factories to fishing and construction.

According to Thailand’s Labour Ministry, there are more than 233,000 documented migrant workers in Samut Sakhon in addition to an unknown number working illegally. There are an estimated four million to five million foreign workers in Thailand, according to the United Nations (UN) – affiliated International Organization for Migration.

Despite efforts at regularising their status, many migrant workers are taken to Thailand by human traffickers and then forced to work in conditions of near slavery for small businesses, as a 2015 investigation by The Associated Press found when it looked into some of the hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs in Samut Sakhon.

The workers’ Myanmar origins have 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 farther east to the border with Thailand.

Thai authorities tried to limit cross-border traffic, but the frontier is notoriously porous.