BANGKOK (AP) – After facing the odds of keeping the coronavirus under control for most of the year, Thailand was suddenly challenged by an expanding outbreak among migrant workers outside Bangkok, the capital.
The increase in cases in Samut Sakhon province threatens to undo months of efforts to contain the virus and accelerate the recovery of Thailand’s weak economy.
Seeking to slow the spread of the virus by isolating infected patients, the Army and Navy received orders from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to help install a 1,000-bed field hospital in the province, Defense Ministry spokesman, Lieutenant General Kongcheep Tantrawanit said Wednesday. It would be located as close as possible to where most patients already are, in order to reduce the risks of transmission by transporting them elsewhere, he said.
Outbreak-related cases have been reported in more than a dozen other provinces, including Bangkok. Capital officials have determined that existing security measures, such as social detachment, wearing masks and checking for fevers, are more strictly observed in markets, temples, parks and entertainment venues. The city’s more than 700 state schools and daycare centers have closed for 12 days starting on Thursday.
Contact tracking found suspected cases for testing, as well as areas to be disinfected. At a mall in the popular shopping area of Siam Square in central Bangkok, three stores visited by a Thai woman who tested positive for coronavirus were temporarily closed for thorough cleaning, as well as a food court at the nearby MBK mall.
The new wave of coronavirus cases abroad already means that Thailand’s economic recovery will slow, as the global economy will take longer to recover, Prayuth said in a televised speech late on Tuesday.
“What we’ve seen now is that being too relaxed about COVID’s precautionary measures can lead to greater economic suffering,” he said.
Prayuth said the situation meant that Thailand must act with care in easing the rules for admitting visitors from other countries – an approach that could hinder efforts to revive the country’s lucrative tourism industry, whose business stopped after Thailand closed regular passenger flights from abroad in early April.
Just before the last outbreak was discovered last week, a new expanded list of countries whose tourists would be allowed to enter under severe restrictions was issued, and the idea of shortening the mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival was under discussion.
Thailand’s 576 new coronavirus cases reported on Sunday – an increase of 13% over the previous grand total of 4,907 – was the largest daily increase in the country. For months, almost all the cases detected were in people who were already in quarantine after arriving from abroad.
More cases since Sunday have increased Thailand’s total to 5,762. Virtually all were migrant workers in Samut Sakhon or were linked to a large seafood market in the province. Health officials said 44% of migrant workers and people with direct connections to the market who have been tested so far were infected, although most had no symptoms.
The seafood market was closed over the weekend and other local restrictions were imposed, including an evening curfew, banning travel outside the province and the closure of many public places. On Tuesday night, two neighboring provinces also imposed blockade measures, including bans on New Year’s celebrations. The seaside town of Pattaya has also canceled plans for public celebrations.
The Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration on Wednesday declared 23 provinces – almost a third of the total – to be at high risk based on identifying suppliers where their main customers were from.
Although cases related to the seafood market 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, praised several times the way Thailand deals with its coronavirus crisis, quoting in a September tweet: “Response from the whole of society and the government, extensive testing, screening contact, community involvement and national community mobilization # health workers ”.
Prayuth’s March statement on a state of emergency allowed his government to also implement measures ranging from blockades and censorship to making masks mandatory and banning the sale of alcohol to fight the virus.
The president of the Federation of Thai Industries, Supan Mongkolsuthree, said that due to the new outbreak, Samut Sakhon’s industrial sector was facing estimated losses of around 1 billion baht ($ 33.1 million) a day.
Supan said the federation is opposed to blocking measures in other areas, because the problem has been spotted and the government could contain it.
Thai Union Group and Charoen Pokphand Foods, both large seafood producers with operations in Samut Sakhon, said they expect little or no disruption to their supply chains.
The source of the latest outbreak is not yet clear, but virtually all new cases involve migrant workers from neighboring Myanmar, Thailand, who work in the seafood industry.
Low-wage migrant labor controls much of Thailand’s economy, from factories to fishing and construction. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labor, there are more than 233,000 documented migrant workers in Samut Sakhon, in addition to an unknown number working illegally. There are an estimated 4 to 5 million foreign workers in Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration, affiliated with the UN.
Despite efforts to regularize their situation, many migrant workers are taken to Thailand by human traffickers and then forced to work in conditions of near slavery for small businesses, according to a 2015 investigation by The Associated Press found when he looked at some of the hundreds of sheds to peel shrimp hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind plaque-free walls in Samut Sakhon.
The origins of workers in Myanmar have already led to accusations about the current outbreak, as a coronavirus outbreak that started in August in the state of Rakhine, in western 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 originating in Myanmar were found in northern Thailand. They were Thais who had returned from stays in Myanmar and avoided the border controls that would have forced them to quarantine. At least two flew south to Bangkok before they could be located.
Still, a segment of popular opinion blames migrant workers who allegedly infiltrated Thailand for the new outbreak.
“This latest outbreak of infections in Samut Sakhon is mainly due to these 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 may be helping criminal networks involved in human trafficking.
Activists for migrant workers frame the situation differently and point out that two other Southeast Asian countries, Singapore and Malaysia, have also had major outbreaks among migrant workers.
“Migrant workers across Asia continue to be at high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 due to their inability to practice social detachment in their work-intensive workplaces and overcrowded and often unhealthy accommodations,” said Andy Hall, a migrant worker specializing in rights who works across Asia.