Thailand eases restrictions despite Omicron warnings

The Thailand government has announced a winding back of restrictions ahead of the holiday season, despite repeated warnings about the Omicron variant.

Daily cases last Monday were reported to be at 2,862 with 37 fatalities, according to the Public Health Ministry. The number of cases has been on a steady decline from the third wave in August which saw upwards of 20,000 cases and 300 deaths each day.

Thailand joined a rapidly growing list of countries when it first detected an imported case of the more transmissible and vaccine-resistant Omicron variant on December 6. There have since been another 10 cases from foreign arrivals.

A health worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The Thai government’s initial banning of travellers from eight African countries in order to halt the Omicron variant have been overshadowed by the pace of Omicron’s spread across the world. The World Health Organisation stated last week that a total of 77 countries have detected the variant thus far and that it was likely already present in most countries.

While there has been no reported community transmission in Thailand, the Department of Medical Services (DMS) has warned that Thailand could end up dealing with a surge of Omicron infections after the end-of-year celebrations.

“I must admit the Omicron variant appears to be spreading faster than Delta,” DMS director-general Somsak Akksilp said on Tuesday.

While the prospect of a highly transmissible variant is officially acknowledged as imminent, the Thailand government announced last Monday the relaxation of restrictions and an opening of its borders.

Overland border crossing between the north-eastern province of Nong Khai and Laos will be permitted from December 24. In mid-January, provinces bordering Malaysia will proceed under the “Test & Go” quarantine exemption scheme.

Under this arrangement, vaccinated travellers from more than 60 countries are given a PCR test immediately upon arrival and transitioned to a government-approved hotel until a negative result is returned, usually within 24 hours.

In addition, all 23 provinces classified as “maximum controlled” or “Red Zones” will be downgraded to “controlled” on Dec 16. Finally, places to eat in all provinces can serve alcohol on New Year’s Eve up to 1am on the following morning.

New Year’s countdown events will allow up to 5,000 people in public areas such as Hor Kham Luang and Royal Park Rajapruek in Chiang Mai Province, as well as venues in four other provinces.

The government’s adoption of a “vaccine only” strategy, criticised as inadequate by the WHO, stands completely exposed in the face of the vaccine-resistant Omicron variant. The country lags behind its vaccination target of 70 percent by October with only 62.1 percent of the population double-vaccinated and 5.9 percent given a third booster dose.

The government’s Covid-19 Taskforce scrambled to announce last week that booster shots could be administered three months after the second dose, rather than five. However, the scale of shots required means that for many months the majority of the population will be vulnerable to infection and death.

As with capitalist governments throughout the region, what is prioritised with the homicidal policy of “living with the virus” is corporate profit over public health.

Thailand’s economy is forecast to expand by just 1.2 percent this year, after a contraction of 6.1 percent in 2020, according to data from the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council.

A concerted drive is underway by big business to revive its tourist industry which accounted for 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2019 and 20 percent of total employment, with 40 million tourists visiting from foreign countries. Last November, only 133,061 arrivals came, as opposed to a monthly average of 3 million before the pandemic.

Speaking for sections of big business at Bangkok Post’s International Forum 2021 on December 2, Air Asia Group chief executive officer Tony Fernandes attempted to downplay concerns over the Omicron variant, calling it a “huge overreaction” and for “common sense” to prevail.

“We don’t know anything about this variant yet. Let’s wait and see before we jump the gun,” he said.

In an interview with Channel News Asia, CEO of Asia-based Diethelm Travel Group lamented the fact that governments were “frightening people” and “risking an even bigger tragedy as people run out of financial resources.”

While big business is clamouring for an end to even limited health measures, the military-backed regime faced significant protests at the peak of the latest wave of infections. Protests that have lasted a year calling for the ousting of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha along with reforms of the monarchy coalesced with opposition to the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Last Thursday inmates at Krabi prison in southern Thailand rioted to demand that those who have tested positive to COVID-19 be removed from the jail and hospitalised. After 300 police were sent to suppress the protest, some of the prisoners set fire to their cells on Friday night. Fourteen of the inmates had to be treated for wounds caused by rubber bullets.

Of the 2,100 prisoners in the jail, around 300 have tested positive. Thai prisons are notoriously overcrowded. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 87,000 inmates have been infected, with 185 officially recorded deaths.

The pandemic has intensified the country’s social and economic crisis. The latest unemployment figures for the third quarter of 2021 were the highest since the outbreak of COVID-19. While the official jobless figure of 2.25 percent is apparently low, it only covers the so-called formal sector of the economy, with large layers of working people eking out an existence in casual employment in the informal sector.

According to a Thai PBS World Report, household debt has increased to the largest level in ASEAN, and second highest in Asia. Increased demand is also being placed on highly exploited migrant labour, most of which is undocumented from Myanmar. The incident of mental health problems and suicides is on the rise.

While the daily cases numbers have dropped since their peak in August, the spread of the Omicron variant threatens to lead to another wave of infections of the deadly virus.