Today, the Public Health Ministry announced 122 new cases of COVID-19 infection, bringing the total number of infected persons in Thailand to 721, a 20% increase from the day before. On Sunday, there were 188 new cases, nearly a 46% increase from Saturday.
The issue isn’t just that the increase rate has gone down, but how many people are being tested and how readily available the testing kits are. According to the Department of Medical Science and the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT), 30,000 people have been tested at three public hospitals. There’s no reported numbers of tested cases from private hospitals.
With inefficient data, it’s difficult to ascertain how well Thailand is performing in terms of testing the public for COVID-19, or how widespread the virus actually is. Meanwhile, the Public Health Ministry reported to have 10,000 test kits available and will issue 100,000 more kits over the next month, increasing to one million kits in six months.
However, in South Korea, testing is not an exception, but the norm. While data is efficient and up-to-date.
Testing and tracking
In order to contain the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that testing and tracking must be done, in addition to locking down an infected area.
Since the outbreak in South Korea, 290,000 people have been tested and there’s no shortage in testing kits in the country. While on the streets of Seoul, one may find testing tents for COVID-19, getting tested in Thailand is neither easy nor affordable.
Currently, the kingdom has around 1,300 public and private hospitals and 150,000 beds, with a population of 69 million people. Getting tested for COVID-19 at a public hospital is anywhere between THB3,000 to as high as THB14,000. At private hospitals, the costs are between B5,000 to over THB10,000.
These price tags leave most Thais unable to afford getting tested for COVID-19. Meanwhile, some hospitals charge a higher rate for foreigners.
Danger of half-measures
In today’s press conference, Supakit Sirilak, deputy permanent secretary at the Health Ministry, warned that the COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand could have the same trajectory as in Italy and the United States, if strict measures are not taken.
He said we are still in the “golden period,” in which—with strict measures—we can contain the outbreak “like Japan, not Europe”.
But for how long will this golden period last, if the government continues with only ineffective half-measures?
According to the Ministry of Public Heath, on Sunday, there were 599 confirmed cases nationwide (covering 36 provinces) while 325 cases are in Bangkok. The next highest were Nonthaburi Province at 72 cases and Samut Prakan Province at 29 cases, both provinces are bordered by Bangkok. The next highest were 21 cases in Chonburi Province, an hour-and-a-half drive away from the capital. The rest are in the teens and single digits.
Thailand’s provinces are now more vulnerable to infection, as tens of thousands of workers are returning to their homes, following two announcements.
On Saturday, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) ordered the temporary shutdown of malls and salons, and limited restaurants to take-away service only. Last Tuesday, the government cabinet temporarily shut down schools, sports stadiums, entertainment venues and other places where more than 50 people might gather.
Take care of people
With the travel ban imposed on the Malaysian borders, the Singaporean government found temporary housing for over 10,000 Malaysian workers, who are stuck on the island.
Meanwhile, closure announcements by both the Thai cabinet and BMA have resulted in mass people movement in times of an outbreak, that could very well lead to further spread of the virus.
The estimated number of people leaving Bangkok has been around 70,000 to 80,000 per day, according to Jirasak Yaowatchasakul, CEO of The Transport Company. The number increased by over 10,000 yesterday, following BMA’s announcement.
On March 22, it was reported that a policeman returning to his home province from Bangkok was found to have been infected with COVID-19. The incident demonstrates how those leaving Bangkok might increase the infection rate for the rest of Thailand.
Lockdown to save lives
After Wuhan found its first mortality case of COVID-19, the central government ordered the closure of the city within the first ten days, in order to contain the disease from spreading. China continued to close down city after city, while flights and travels were banned. On Mar 19, China reported no new confirmed domestic cases for the first time since the outbreak.
On the other hand, Thailand still has not banned flights, thereby remaining vulnerable to the virus spreading into the country, despite measures that require inbound tourists and returnees to have medical certification and to download government tracking applications.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has scrambled to prevent possible spread of the disease caused by workers leaving Bangkok. The Ministry issued a decree for all provincial governments to screen workers returning home for the infection.
Fearing the spread of the virus, some provinces are acting independently of the central government by closing down their borders. This includes Buriram Province, the stronghold of government coalition partner, Bhumjaitai Party, which ordered a lockdown since last week.
Thus far, Buriram found one infected case, a tourist.