Thailand faces growing outbreak ahead of New Year travel

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Thai authorities were struggling to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak just days before the country’s traditional Songkran New Year holiday when millions of people were traveling.

Health officials reported 559 new infections Friday after gaining weight over the past two days. The government’s response so far has centered on the closure of nightspots in 41 provinces for two weeks. Some provincial governors restrict travelers arriving from elsewhere.

Such daily increases are rare in Thailand, where the pandemic has been weathered far better than many other countries through measures such as strict border controls that have decimated the country’s lucrative tourism industry. Thailand has also experimented with curfews, alcohol bans and closings of schools, shopping malls and restaurants at times.

The outbreak, which has infected at least one cabinet minister and forced a number of others to self-quarantine, heightened criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government and its handling of the pandemic. While Thailand has only recorded 30,869 infections and 96 deaths, critics say the vaccination campaign is too slow – less than 1% got their shocks – and there is a lack of support for people whose livelihoods were wiped out by the pandemic.

The Director General of the Department of Disease Control, Dr. Grandpas Karnkawinpong said this week that the health ministry forecast that the number of new infections could rise to 10,000 a day if appropriate measures are not taken.

Travelers and businesses alike had hoped this year’s Songkran vacation could continue without a surge in infections. The official holiday was canceled last year during the country’s first major outbreak.

The government has so far refused to impose blanket travel restrictions, although provincial authorities are allowed to set quarantine rules for people coming from risk areas such as Bangkok. Several provinces have done this and have challenged many people’s travel plans.

Most notably, Chiang Mai in the north was one of the most popular travel destinations in the country until the coronavirus pandemic crippled the tourism industry.

The health authorities of Chiang Mai Province require visitors from Bangkok and four surrounding provinces to self-quarantine for the duration of their stay of up to 14 days, the state-run Thai news agency reported. A field hospital with 280 beds was set up to treat COVID-19 patients.

The state-run Transport Company, a major inter-provincial bus operator, estimated that only half of the 100,000 people expected to leave Bangkok for other provinces on Friday had started their journey, the Bangkok Post reported.

At least two airline executives wanted travel restrictions tightened during the Songkran vacation. Tassapon Bijleveld of Asia Aviation, the largest shareholder in Thai AirAsia, and Nuntaporn Komonsittivate of Thai Lion Air both said further spread of the virus could jeopardize future large-scale returns of foreign visitors.

The current outbreak is the largest since December when it focused on a fresh food market that employs a number of migrant workers from Myanmar. This time around, the outbreak has been attributed to a number of bars and nightlife spots in the heart of Bangkok, including many popular with the rich and powerful. Cases are currently increasing in at least 20 provinces. Authorities say some of those infected have a more contagious variant of the virus, which was first discovered in the UK.

So far, Thailand has used a relatively small supply of vaccines against Sinovac and AstraZeneca. While there have been some high profile vaccination events, most recently for workers at now-closed entertainment venues, there is still no clear timetable for the general public.

The authorities in Bangkok have set up mass testing stations in some parts of the city, which attract large numbers of people who often have to wait in line for hours. Efforts to track down infection have been complicated after a number of Bangkok hospitals announced they would suspend testing due to the lack of chemicals needed to run tests.

The government has made preparations to set up field hospitals to accommodate any increases in patient numbers, and said vacant rooms in Bangkok hotels could also be converted to accommodate infected people if the number continues to rise.

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