I have boasted in comments and even a diary about Thailand’s success in keeping the pandemic at bay. For the sake of completeness and simple honesty, I must now report that Thailand has fallen into the Corona sinkhole.
When I published that piece on 15 Dec, Thailand’s numbers clocked in at just over 4000 total cases, no community transmissions in months and 60 deaths. WHO was praising Thailand as an exemplar for the world. Within days, on the 20th, we were shocked by a record jump of 576 new cases. Since then, the total has quintupled to over 20,000 and 79 deaths (given the population of 70 million, multiplying the numbers by five gives a rough comparison to numbers for the US).
It’s not so much that there were suddenly in excess of 500 new infections in a single day, as that previously undetected pockets of infection were discovered, as it were underground. The surface has now collapsed and we are recording upwards of a thousand new cases on some days. The sinkhole opened in Samut Sakhon, a tiny, over-populated province on the Gulf of Thailand whose main industry is processing seafood for domestic and international markets.
The first case was detected in a single Thai vendor in the shrimp markets, but contact tracers discovered that the virus was raging full force in migrant labor communities.
Raw seafood processing is labor-intensive work performed largely by low-wage migrant workers from neighboring Myanmar. Burmese, the majority ethnic group in Myanmar, are generally despised in Thailand, creating isolated communities of people living in enforced squalor and hesitant to mingle with the broader population. More, with the borders sealed due to Covid, employers brought large numbers of Burmese into the country illegally, bypassing required health checks and quarantines. Those workers, then, despised and undocumented, though supporting one of the main sectors of the Thai economy, did their best to remain invisible, especially from Thai officialdom, including the ample public health system. It is impossible to believe that local authorities, the police, immigration and even healthcare officials didn’t know they were there, but in one of the world’s most corrupt countries, bribes easily turn heads the other way. Inevitably, the virus leapt over into the wider community, infecting even the governor, who has been on life support on and off for the last month.
The health department leapt into action with contact tracing and massive, continuing, proactive testing, getting people into quarantine and treatment. Five provinces have been put on total lockdown with hotspots sealed off. The government has legalized the migrant workers, giving access to healthcare and facilitating the process of testing, treating and quarantining. Although there have been cases in 53 of our 76 provinces, the collapse seems mostly contained to a very few. Almost all new cases are now being found in Samut Sakhon, and even in nearby Bangkok new infections seem to be falling off.
But countrywide testing uncovered another, though much smaller, pocket of cases in Chonburi Province, home to Pattaya, whose main industry is sex tourism, together with drugs and gambling.
Now, sex work, drugs and gambling are all illegal in Thailand, but the prohibition of gambling is actually enforced (i.e. the bribes are higher), forcing it into closed, secretive venues (“dens” the English-language press insists on calling them). Gambling is, if anything, even more popular among Thais than sex and drugs, so you get large numbers of sweaty, heavily-breathing, shouting men (mostly) jostling each other in small poorly ventilated rooms, super-spreading. It may be worth noting here that the first big super-spreading venue in the first wave, last March, was a boxing, ipso facto gambling, arena in Bangkok, so it’s not surprising that Facebookworld is condemning the police for turning a blind eye to gambling in Chonburi. In response, Chonburi and neighboring provinces are on lockdown and the police have been busy cracking down on gambling.
I haven’t seen any confirmation of this, but the virus may well have been brought to Chonburi by Samut Sakhon denisens spending their profits on sex and gambling. And, for that matter by sex workers from Samut Sakhon seeking more profitable venues.
Allow me to make a couple of observations. Not to say that all Thais are racists, but since the outbreak was linked to Burmese migrant workers, racism has risen to hyper pitch, with someone posting on Facebook, “If you see a Burmese, kill them.” But the migrants, desperate for work, are hardly to blame, and living in conditions that often amount to modern slavery, they’d rather be back home in Myanmar. Look rather to profit-hungry employers eager for low-wage labor and bribe-hungry provincial officials. Especially, blame the bigotry and marginalization that kept these communities neglected and invisible, the attitude that these are only filthy Burmese after all, justly exploited and neglected.
Recall a similar situation in Singapore, which early on posted glowing Covid numbers until someone looked into the shabby, crowded dormitories where migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, were forced to live: half have been infected (www.bbc.com/…). Bigotry and the marginalization that goes with it create Petri dishes of infection that spill over to the general population, driving more bigotry, another case of the well known, cycle: bigotry drives marginalization drives bigotry. What’s striking here is the extent that bigotry and marginalization can literally be lethal to the bigots and everyone else.
Second: Gambling doesn’t cause infection—it’s the close, poorly ventilated quarters forced on gamblers by making their pastime illegal. I learned once in an anthropology class that laws that do not conform to existing culture will not be obeyed. That seems to be correct. If a popular activity is problematic, and gambling here certainly is, it can perhaps be regulated in ways that minimize the problems. “Stop doing that! “ doesn’t work.
**Breaking: The Thai government is now considering legalizing gambling to better control the outbreak!**
Moral: Tackle a problem by tracing the dynamics that brought it about. Repeatedly whacking the spot where it first appeared can make it worse.
Also, everybody, be safe out there. Don’t let your guard down!