After months of calm, Thailand is facing an outbreak of the virus

BANGKOK (AP) – After managing to keep the coronavirus under control for most of the year, Thailand suddenly found itself provoked by a growing outbreak among migrant workers at the Bangkok gate, the capital.

The increase in the number of cases in Samut Sakhon province threatens to cancel efforts for months to contain the virus and speed up the recovery of the sick economy in Thailand.

In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus by isolating infected patients, the army and navy were ordered by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to help set up a 1,000-bed field hospital in the province, Ministry of Defense spokesman Lt. General Kongcheep Tantrawanit. said Wednesday. He would be located as close as possible to where most patients are already, to reduce the risk of transmission, transporting them elsewhere, he said.

Outbreak-related cases have already been reported in more than a dozen other provinces, including Bangkok. Officials in the capital have ordered that existing security measures, such as social distancing, wearing a mask and checking for fever, be more strictly observed in markets, temples, parks and entertainment venues. More than 700 schools and state nurseries in the city have been ordered to close for 12 days starting Thursday.

Tracking contacts found suspicious cases for testing, as well as areas that need to be disinfected. In a mall in the popular Siam Square shopping area of ​​central Bangkok, three shops visited by a Thai woman who tested positive for coronavirus were temporarily closed for deep cleaning, as was a food court at the MBK mall in Bangkok. nearby.

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

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

Prayuth said the situation means Thailand needs to be careful as it relaxes the rules for admitting visitors from other countries – an approach that could hamper efforts to revive the country’s lucrative tourism industry, whose business has dried up after Thailand closed regular passenger flights from abroad in early April.

Shortly before the last outbreak was found last week, a new extensive list of countries whose tourists would be allowed to enter under strict restrictions was issued, and the idea of ​​shortening a mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival was under discussion.

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

Several cases on Sunday raised Thailand’s total to 5,762. Virtually all were migrant workers in Samut Sakhon or otherwise connected to a large seafood market in the province. Health officials said 44% of migrant workers and people with direct links to the market who had been tested so far had been found to be infected, although most had no symptoms.

The seafood market was closed over the weekend and other local restrictions were imposed, including a night extinguisher, a ban on travel outside the province and the closure of many public places. Late Tuesday night, two neighboring provinces also imposed blocking measures, including bans on the New Year holidays. The seaside resort town of Pattaya has also canceled plans for public holidays.

The COVID-19 Situation Management Center said on Wednesday 23 provinces – nearly a third of the total – were at high risk, based on suppliers identifying where their main customers come from.

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

The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has repeatedly praised Thailand’s management of the coronavirus crisis, quoting in a September tweet: “An entire society and the entire government response, extensive testing, following contacts, community engagement and national mobilization of the #healthy workers community. “

Prayuth’s March statement on the state of emergency allowed his government to also implement measures ranging from closures and censorship to mandatory masking and a ban on alcohol sales to combat the virus.

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

Supan said the federation opposes blocking measures in other areas because the problem has been located and the government could solve 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 supply chains.

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

The work of low-wage migrants fuels much of Thailand’s economy, from factories to fishing and construction. According to the Thai Ministry of Labor, there are more than 233,000 documented migrant workers in Samut Sakhon, in addition to an unknown number working illegally. It is estimated that there are between 4 and 5 million foreign workers in Thailand, according to the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration.

Despite efforts to regularize their status, many migrant workers are taken to Thailand by human traffickers and then forced to work in near-slavery conditions for small businesses, according to a 2015 survey by The Associated Press. found when he looked at some of the hundreds of shrimp cleaning dumps hidden from view on residential streets or behind unmarked walls in Samut Sakhon.

The origins of Myanmar workers have already led to the current outbreak, since a coronavirus outbreak that began in August in the western Rakhine state of Myanmar spread to the commercial capital, Yangon, and then further east to the border. with Thailand.

Thai authorities have tried to limit cross-border traffic, but the border is notoriously porous. In early December, cases from Myanmar were found in northern Thailand. It was Thais who returned from their stay in Myanmar and avoided border controls that would have forced them into quarantine. At least two flew south to Bangkok before they could be pursued.

However, a segment of popular opinion blames migrant workers who allegedly slipped into Thailand for the new outbreak.

“This latest outbreak of infections in Samut Sakhon is primarily due to such illegal immigrants,” Prime Minister Prayuth said on Tuesday without providing evidence. On Wednesday, he ordered the military to step up patrols to detect illegal border crossings and called for investigations into corrupt officials who could help criminal networks engaging in human trafficking.

Activists for migrant workers view 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 in Asia continue to be at high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 due to their inability to practice social distancing in both their intensive workplaces and their overcrowded and often unhealthy housing,” said Andy. Hall, a migrant rights specialist working throughout Asia.