When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on June 16 that the country was preparing to reopen in 120 days, many wondered if he had set an unattainable goal.
The country was languishing in the throes of the Covid-19 crisis and the prognosis for the pandemic was not encouraging. The number of daily cases was on the rise at a time when the government fumbled over vaccine supply as it tried to determine when the next batch of vaccine would come.
We are now halfway through the 120-day deadline which falls in mid-October. Daily infections which peaked at over 23,000 have declined to around 18,000 in recent days. More vaccines have arrived with more than 120 million doses promised by the government by the end of the year.
The government is basing its hopes on the success of the ongoing tourist sandbox program in Phuket and Samui to attract foreign visitors.
Halfway through the government’s promise to reopen in mid-October, politicians and stakeholders interviewed by the Bangkok Post cautiously agreed that the deadline must be met as the economy can no longer remain closed.
The economy needs space to breathe
The economy has been in free fall for quite a long time due to intermittent shutdowns and public health restrictions. He must have room to breathe in mid-October, said Kla Party General Secretary Atavit Suwannapakdee.
He predicted that the pandemic will persist again into October, although reopening the country should be the rule, not an exception.
“We have reached a point where we cannot continue to close our door. We also have to face the fact that the government’s centralized approach to managing the pandemic is out of place,” he said. .
“The reopening plan must go ahead. If we delay it, what the country has planned will be ruined and the country as a whole will lose credibility,” Atavit added.
The government’s fight against the pandemic has been less than successful with the latest lockdown and restrictions proving futile exercise to contain the virus.
“Many will not die from the disease but from the inability to earn a living,” he said.
The chances of the country resuming operations in October depend on its “savior”, the vaccine.
Mr Atavit noted that a strong public health sector has been the reason for the effective deployment of the vaccine.
Moreover, Thais are charitable by nature. They rallied around the health workers and offered them all kinds of help whenever they could. This further intensified national efforts to distribute the vaccine.
According to him, the vaccine should not be subjected to the approval of the authorities. Registration should suffice as it can speed up imports and open up a competitive playing field that can lower vaccine prices.
Questions loom over the reopening
While reopening in mid-October is doable, it raises several questions, including how well prepared are companies to resume trade and welcome foreign visitors, according to Prinn Panitchpakdi, Deputy Leader of the Democratic Party and Chief of its economic team.
There is also the question of whether the reopening of businesses will progress in phases and whether more alternative vaccines, for which people have to pay, will be made available.
“But we have to appreciate the fact that the ‘reopening’ is subject to interpretation. At the moment Thailand is not completely closed. It’s only that we have imposed a lockdown which is unnecessarily intense,” he said. he declares.
Mr Prinn said authorities must carefully weigh which visitors will be welcomed when the reopening begins. “If we neglect precautions, we risk inviting a new wave of infections, as has happened in other countries,” he said.
Mr Prinn said the goal of achieving collective immunity in time for the reopening may not be achieved.
Admitting that it is difficult to assess the country’s willingness to resume operations, he said the economic cost of the protracted pandemic was becoming almost impossible for people on the streets to bear.
Other repercussions in terms of mental anguish and social distress must be taken into account. A gradual reopening must be accompanied by a higher vaccination rate while health security measures must be applied and practiced.
He expects that from mid-October, the government will expand the sandbox tourism program to major tourism provinces served by airports. If by then Bangkok reports significantly fewer infections, it will likely join the ranks.
Critical number of vaccinations
The longer the lockdown persists, the more damage the economy will suffer, although the success of the reopening depends on the number of people vaccinated, said Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (TCC).
The possibility of reopening should be assessed closer to the mid-October deadline to achieve the most realistic pandemic situation, he said. The outlook for the vaccine stock is promising as 120 million doses are expected before the end of the year.
Health security is an essential factor in getting the country back on track. However, this should not come at the expense of the economy. The TCC has warned that economic losses caused by the pandemic have amounted to 800 billion baht since the start of the year. The figure could exceed a trillion baht if Covid-19 shows no signs of improving before the end of the year.
“It would be helpful if the reopening could be launched as planned,” said the TCC chairman. The business sector and the public must learn to live with Covid-19. Which economic activities should resume first is not a one-size-fits-all decision.
Collective immunity not far away
The public health ministry said collective immunity was within reach. Mass vaccination is progressing and at-risk groups – the elderly, people with underlying diseases and pregnant women – are being vaccinated in large numbers every day, ministry spokesman Rungrueng Kitphati said.
However, vaccines are not a quick fix. People will also need to adhere to health security measures, practice social distancing, and wear face masks if necessary.
“The reopening of the country will be done step by step with appropriate measures. State quarantine is still necessary. Visitors should be fully vaccinated with papers to confirm they are free from Covid,” he said .
Opas Karnkawinpong, director general of the Department of Disease Control (DoDC), said vaccination targets were being met with 124 million doses to be purchased by year-end and daily inoculation capacity exceeding 600,000 doses.
More than 17 million doses are being acquired next month: 6.5 million from Sinovac, 7.3 million from AstraZeneca, two million from Pfizer and two million from Sinopharm. 24 million more doses (six million Sinovac, 10 million AstraZeneca and eight million Pfizer) arrive in October.
Confidence is built on jabs
Natdanai Kulthatyos-anan, vice president of the Federation of Street Vendors, said the government will do everything possible to get the country back on track by October.
However, foreign visitors will only be wooed if they are satisfied that a sufficient number of residents are immunized with highly effective vaccines against emerging variants of Covid-19.
He said the federation has around 1,000 members, less than half of whom have received jabs.
Julajira Kampong, secretary of the Chiang Mai Guides Association, said everyone in the service, hospitality and tourism industries is keen to return to work.
However, the only thing that separates them from mid-October is the low vaccination rate of workers in the tourism industry. She said about 10% of them have received vaccines in the province.
Doubts about the reopening
Pannathat Chomwong, 44, said he earns at least 90,000 baht per month as a tour guide mainly for American tourists in Chiang Mai. Now her life has turned upside down because of the pandemic.
He said he was happy to hear that the government was planning to reopen in mid-October. However, he was still skeptical about it.
Natthathida Anilbol, 29, said her family business on Koh Samui in Surat Thani has been closed since the first outbreak early last year. The current third outbreak has cost her business 5,000 to 10,000 baht of her daily income.
“My mother runs a buffet restaurant for the people of Koh Samui to fend for themselves,” she said.
Ms Natthathida said resuming operations in October could be more beneficial for large hotel chains than for small owners.
Sa-nga Ruangwattanakul, chairman of the Khao San Business Association and CEO of the Buddy Group, said Khao San Road, an entertainment spot popular with young foreign visitors, intends to go ‘white’, or Covid-safe , when it reopens.
“The road to Khao San is ready as we have given the first blow to almost all the business owners on this road and the surrounding area. We have requested the vaccine from the Ministry of Public Health,” he said. .
“Vaccination has not even covered 50% of the population. Herd immunity is therefore far away and vaccines remain inaccessible for many. Given this, it will be difficult for the Tourism Authority of Thailand to devise a plan. marketing to promote our country as a safe destination for health, ”he said.