With the worrying news that the UK is now planning to lockdown until Easter big questions have to be asked about the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic in my home country. I myself live here in Thailand where life has been relatively normal when compared to Europe, even with the recent outbreak. Indeed I feared the worst for Thailand after observing the UK from afar but the situation seems to have been well handled and other than some restrictions and closures of certain kinds of businesses life is still bordering on normal.
I’ve had many conversations with family and friends in the UK and I’ve also had family and friends travel to and from UK, thus having spent time in both so a lot of my info. here is first hand. At the time of writing Thailand’s total number of cases is 12,000, even taking into account the 2nd wave which has accounted for 9 more deaths. That’s 9 deaths out of 70,000,000 people. To put that into context, on average 65 people a day die in road accidents here. The UK is currently reporting 80,000 cases ‘per day’ with around 1000 deaths. Double that of the next country down (which is Germany). So how do we explain this huge disparity in numbers?
Border Controls and Quarantine
The most obvious comparison to draw on is where the borders are concerned. Thailand’s borders have been closed and the country has effectively been shut to the outside world since March 2020. In order to enter the country you are required to quarantine in a state approved facility for 15 days. The process is very regimented and akin to a military operation. From the moment you land to the time you enter your hotel room the whole process is extremely stringent. You must take several covid tests, remain in your room except for one hour of exercise per day and your meals are left at your door. The strategy is to stop the virus entering the country at the source and it seems to have worked for the most part. Thailand is logging 10-20 cases perday in quarantine despite having to test negative before arrival so this is the most reliable indicator as to why cases have been so low.
For most of the last year, entering the UK has been easy. You can walk straight through the airport without any testing, checks or certificates. Self-isolation has been required but is not enforced and no checks are made to ensure people are respecting the rules.
In 2020 Thailand was getting on average 50,000 arrivals per month, down 99.5% on the year before. During the same period the UK was getting 500,000 arrivals, so in one month 40 – 50 times more visitors. That could equate to 500 – 1000 incoming infections per day from all over the world (with few restrictions on entry of course).
If you look at other countries that have kept the virus in check, Australia, NZ, Vietnam for example, they have all had strigent border controls.
Mask wearing in Thailand is encouraged and widespread in public areas, especially in Bangkok. Even before covid many people wore masks in the capital due to the pollution. How effective masks are in combatting Covid 19 is the subject of many a heated debate but common sense dictates that they must have some effect (or why would surgeons wear them?).
The UK were very slow on the uptake when it came to masks with many questioning their effectiveness and seeing them as a sign of oppression and impinging on their freedoms. I understand where people are coming from, it’s not natural to wear a face covering and it impedes on our basic abilities to communicate but surely at this time we need to make some sort of an effort where masks are concerned.
Temperature Scanning and Tracking
In Thailand, the majority of places you go, most notably shopping malls, 7/11s and supermarkets, your temperature is taken, you are provided with hand sanitiser and you sign your name and write down your phone number. This is obviously so they can track you if there is a case. There is also a phone app called Morchana which tracks your movements and informs if another infected person is nearby. How effective any of this is is up for debate. Of course just because you have a temperature doesn’t mean you have covid; I read an article recently where a guy who was sick with a temperature checked himself in 7/11 and his reading was perfectly normal. And also when you read down the list of names where people have signed in you see such entries as Donald Duck, Genghis Khan and Fred West. Although it’s quite amusing it’s maybe not altogether responsible.
Although compared to the UK we’ve enjoyed a relatively normal existence over the past year it’s had a devastating effect on tourism. Many many small businesses, bars and restaurants have shut as they can’t afford the rent; as you drive around most places there are empty premises everywhere. I recently visited Krabi and Ao Nang was a depressing shadow of its former self. Usually a bustling hub for tourists, it’s now a ghost town. It’s like this in lots of different places around Thailand.
So are we heading towards a new normal? Will life ever return to some sort of normality or must we just learn to live with Covid? If the UK is the example then we can expect a never ending cycle of lockdowns until the economy is ruined and all small businesses are gone forever? Or, with the vaccination programme is there light at the end of the tunnel?