Lives not lost: Asia sees unexpected gains in virus lockdowns

PATHUM THANI, THAILAND (AFP) – Emergency workers usually busy attending accidents on Thailand’s roads mill around ambulances parked at a service station – fewer crashes and crimes a welcome outcome for several Asian countries during coronavirus lockdowns.

As Asia starts to assess the damage caused by the pandemic, some countries are realising there have been unforeseen benefits.

Vietnam’s nationwide isolation has seen a drop in crime, Hong Kong has hailed an early end to its annual flu season – and now, Thailand is seeing a much-needed win in road safety.

“Accidents have gone down quite a lot,” said Chief of the Por Tek Tung emergency medical team Banjerd Premjit operating just outside Bangkok.

In Pathum Thani province, where his teams of three ambulances normally rush to about 15 grisly crashes a night, accidents have dropped by half.

Volunteer rescue workers from the Por Tek Tung Foundation waiting with their ambulances at a gas station at the beginning of their shift in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok. PHOTOS: AFP
A volunteer rescue worker from the Por Tek Tung Foundation treats a woman for minor injuries at the scene of a road accident

He credited Thailand’s virus-fuelled measures and a nighttime curfew. Thailand has one of the highest rates of road fatalities per capita in the world, coming second only to war-torn Libya in 2015.

The country brought in its anti-coronavirus measures before the Songkran New Year in April, hoping to discourage gatherings.

The week-long holiday is marked annually by a jump in traffic accidents as drunk-drivers on scooters add to the road carnage.

But this year saw a 60 per cent decrease nationwide, with the death toll dropping to 167 from 386 people the year before.

Even Thailand’s coffin makers have seen a dip in demand, with one factory reporting orders are down by a third.

“The outbreak has led to a significant decrease in the number of casualties,” lamented Manager of Suriya Coffin Factory Thanatat Poonau, as workers around him fed plywood to mechanical saws.

Regional neighbours with traffic-clogged megacities are reporting similar trends.

Deaths from road accidents in Japan fell by nearly 20 per cent in April, while Malaysia saw daily fatalities decrease from 17 to five, according to official news agency Bernama.

This year’s figures are even promising in India, which normally records 150,000 fatalities each year on its chaotic roads.

Police said the death toll in the southwestern state of Kerala sank by 90 per cent during the lockdown, compared with the same period last year.

“Rapes also fell from 123 to 37 cases during the lockdown,” Kerala police spokesman Pramod Kumar told AFP.

When the coronavirus hit Hong Kong in late January, residents scarred by memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak flocked to buy masks and immediately embraced social distancing.

With millions practising better hygiene, doctors noticed the annual winter flu season came to an abrupt end in February – nine weeks early with less than a third of last year’s deaths.

On the mainland empty roads and shuttered factories meant killer toxic pollutants dissipated.

Scientists estimate China’s improved air quality averted more than 12,000 cardiovascular-related deaths, although warned in the Lancet journal their results should be “interpreted with caution”.

The environmental gains seen during a global lockdown have scientists and celebrities calling for a “radical transformation” to save the planet instead of a return to normal.

But many businesses want the restrictions lifted as soon as possible.

Suriya Coffin Factory has had to donate coffins to walk-in customers who cannot afford to put their loved ones to rest, said manager Thanatat.

A sustained mortality slowdown would almost certainly sound the death knell for their business, he added.

“If the outbreak is protracted, we might have to downsize our production even more… we need to cut costs on almost everything.”