Phuket reopens during Thailand's worst week of the pandemic to date

Island Wrap #46: Health & Tourism edition for June 19 to July 2, 2021

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A stark contrast between hopes for the future and grim realities in the present was on display this week in Thailand. On Thursday, the Prime Minister oversaw the reopening of inbound tourism in Phuket with a gleeful celebration. At the same time, in Bangkok, Songkhla and other parts of the country, Covid-19 cases were straining the medical system to the point that some hospitals ran out of beds.

Thailand’s Covid-19 numbers reached several all-time highs, prompting authorities to tighten containment measures in certain areas. Facing intense criticism, both online and in the streets, the government finally moved to provide financial aid to some workers and businesses. Meanwhile, the launch of Phuket’s inbound tourism reopening program vacuumed up much of the media’s attention.

Before wading deeper into the details, I want to give a shout out to one source that I’ve found invaluable since the earliest days of the pandemic:

If you want to stay informed about the Covid-19 and tourism reopening situation not only in Thailand but the entire Southeast Asian region, subscribe to the weekly summaries produced by the tourism industry pros at Pear Anderson. They boil down issues like regional border restrictions and vaccination numbers into crisp reports that cover loads of useful info in one place. It’s free to sign up.

Phuket Sandbox launch

Correspondents from a host of media outlets joined much of the government’s top brass to welcome the first travelers to enter Thailand through the Phuket Sandbox program as if they were Olympic athletes coming home. Despite all of the difficulties that the people of Thailand are facing, many were excited to see the first tourists enter the country with little to no quarantine since early 2020.

The program got off to a shaky start due to a last-minute rule change and glitches in the application process, which I summarized in an article on Wednesday. I’ll leave it there for the time being, but you can expect a less serious article about the Sandbox from me soon. For now, I wish Phuket the best of luck.

Covid-19 by the numbers

Thailand reported 60,139 cases, or 4,296 per day on average, since my last Covid-19 update two weeks ago. Amounting to a roughly 35% increase compared to the previous two weeks, this was by far the highest case number recorded over any two-week period since the third wave began in early April. All-time single-day highs were reported on each of the last three days, topped by 6,087 cases on Friday.

Yesterday also marked a single-day high for deaths in Thailand, with 61 people sadly succumbing to Covid-19. These are included in the total of 564 deaths related to the coronavirus over the past fortnight, again marking an all-time high. The number of Covid-19 patients in ICU beds stood at 2,002 yesterday, with 579 of them being treated on ventilators. Both of those figures are all-time highs as well.

Bangkok’s two-week case total jumped to 19,358, including an all-time single-day high of 2,267 yesterday. Add in the small surrounding provinces and the total for metro Bangkok jumps to 36,224, a roughly 30% increase compared to the previous fortnight. Not included in that figure are the 3,123 cases found in nearby Chonburi, an increase of nearly 70% compared to the previous two weeks in that province.

The deep South now stands as the second worst affected area. Songkhla province (including Hat Yai) reported 2,479 cases over the last two weeks, followed by Pattani with 1,722, Yala with 1,482, and Narathiwat with 1,022. The virus spilled from these areas into the nearby Andaman-coast province of Satun, which had a two-week total of 102 cases after reporting the lowest case numbers in the South for many weeks.

Case totals jumped or held steady in every other coastal province. Phetchaburi had 953 cases, followed by Rayong with 600, Prachuap Khiri Khan with 562, Ranong with 286, Nakhon Si Thammarat with 276, Phang Nga with 218, Trang with 215, and Surat Thani with 181. Provinces that fared better include Krabi with 79 cases, Chanthaburi with 75, Trat with 67, and Chumphon with 36. Even so, most of these figures represent increases compared to the previous two-week period as well.

Case numbers stayed lower in most of Thailand’s upcountry provinces when compared to Bangkok and the South, but the situation also worsened in parts of the North and Northeast. Chiang Rai province had a marked increase in cases over the past two weeks, while sizable outbreaks appeared over recent days in Mae Sot, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Ubon Ratchathani, among others.

Though Phuket’s daily case numbers are still in the single digits, its total count of 46 cases doubled the case number from the previous fortnight. The stakes are extra high in Phuket because authorities have said that mandatory hotel quarantine for inbound travelers could be reinstated, or the Phuket Sandbox program scrapped altogether, if case numbers jump above 90 over the course of a week.

Some of the only good pandemic news over the past two weeks is the extremely low number of known cases in Thailand’s islands. Ko Samui reported four cases over that span, while a single case surfaced on Ko Chang (Trat). No cases have been found on any of the other islands for three weeks or more, as far as I know.

Chiang Mai province stands as another success story with daily cases in or close to single digits over the last month, even if 11 cases of the highly contagious Delta variant sparked concern there recently. The chief of the Dept. of Medical Sciences said on June 28th that the Alpha variant is still behind around 86% of all cases in Thailand. Delta variant cases increased to roughly 12%, however, and some medical experts cautioned that it could become the dominant variant soon.

Bangkok’s first known case of the Beta variant surfaced this week. Known for its resistance to the vaccines made by AstraZeneca and other producers, the Beta variant appeared in several Southern provinces after most likely leaking into the country from Malaysia. Keep in mind that usual testing protocols do not include checking for variants, leaving the full variant picture rather murky in Thailand.

The country’s vaccination rate has settled at around 225,000 doses per day, with more than 6 million jabs administered since the mass rollout began on June 7th. Around 4.3% of Thailand’s population is now fully vaccinated, and more than 10% have received a first dose. The government claimed that 10 million doses will be given this month. But as Joe’s tweet displays, vaccine hesitancy remains:

Camping out for Covid treatment

A shortage of hospital beds is perhaps the most troubling development over the last two weeks. In Bangkok, Chulalongkorn Hospital was one of several facilities that halted Covid-19 testing because it had no beds left for those who test positive. ICU beds ran out at Siriraj Hospital, which is the largest public hospital in Thailand and famously handled medical care for the late King Bhumibol.

Only 20 ICU beds were reportedly left open for critical-care patients at all of Bangkok’s public hospitals, combined, on June 23rd. Two days later, a 38-year-old woman sadly died from Covid-19 complications at home after she’d fruitlessly spent a week attempting to find a bed in a public hospital.

On Wednesday, a 60-year-old woman (see tweet below) pitched a tent to stay in front of Nang Loeng police station in Bangkok because, after she’d tested positive for Covid-19, medical responders failed to transfer her to a hospital and she refused to stay at home due to fear of transmitting the virus to her family. More recently, a doctor shared photos that he took of “people camping outside (Ramathibodi Hospital) in hopes of getting a bed for Covid-19 treatment,” reports Coconuts Bangkok.

A Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) center charged with arranging beds for Covid-19 patients through the public health system “announced a temporary closure for migrant workers,” wrote Bangkok Post on June 27th, after staff was unable to locate beds for migrants who had been “abandoned” by employers. Bed shortages were also reported in Songkhla as well as Mae Sot up north and Samut Sakhon near Bangkok.

The shortages prompted health authorities to allow asymptomatic Covid-19 patients to isolate at home for the very first time in Thailand. Concerned that home isolation could lead to further spread, one prominent doctor suggested converting schools and temples into holding facilities for asymptomatic patients.

Authorities are working to ease the bed shortages. A military camp was converted into a field hospital with ICU capabilities, while 10 hotels with a combined 4,424 beds were repurposed for asymptomatic patients. Some of those who test positive are leaving metro Bangkok to go look for hospitals in other regions.

Hospital bed shortages are likely to persist as long as the ratio between new patients and those who are discharged remains lopsided. Yesterday, the number of new patients eclipsed those released from hospitals by 2,438. A serious overflow of Covid-19 patients appears inevitable if this trend were to continue.

Bangkok is also dealing with a health-care worker shortage, especially in field hospitals where thousands of patients with mild or no symptoms are staying. Newly graduated medical workers are being “drafted” from other parts of the country to fill the void in the capital, where new Covid-19 clusters are found through testing and tracing on close to a daily basis. Other recent clusters include:

Tensions are running high at times. In Krabi province, a man “shot his way into a hotel” being used as a quarantine center in Ao Nang to bust out his wife and son, reports Thai PBS World. And in Pathum Thani, an ex-soldier opened fire in a Covid-19 field hospital, killing a 54-year-old patient seemingly at random. “The suspect, 23, believed that the patients in the hospital were drug addicts and that he hated drug addicts, regional police chief Amphol Buarabporn told Reuters.”

Containment measures

The government adjusted its color-coded map highlighting the varying levels of Covid-19 control nationally, though most restrictions are now being implemented at the local level. For example, authorities in Songkhla imposed a curfew from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM until July 29th, while those in Chonburi introduced a ban on all alcohol sales from 8:00 PM to 4:00 AM until further notice.

Not long after public parks, swimming pools and several other venues were allowed to reopen, authorities banned dining in at restaurants in Bangkok and surrounding provinces via an unexpected late-night announcement. The rules also cover the deep Southern provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. So far, the government has resisted calls to enact tighter general restrictions.

However, hard lockdowns have been imposed on construction sites and related low-income worker housing in Bangkok and five neighboring provinces, as well as the four deep Southern provinces. Some 600 cramped construction camps have been sealed off in metro Bangkok, trapping roughly 80,000 laborers who are mostly migrants from nearby countries. In a move that some found disturbing, thousands of troops were deployed to prevent workers from leaving the camps.

Workers who fled the camps along with the capital city shortly before the lockdown took effect reportedly spread Covid-19 in 32 other provinces. Since then, authorities began to force some travelers to download QR codes when leaving metro Bangkok. MOPH officials are even asking people to wear masks inside their homes to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among families and housemates.

In addition, strict lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of the Beta variant were expanded to eight subdistricts in Pattani, 32 villages in Narathiwat and a small Muslim community in Krabi. Closer to Bangkok, heightened control measures were also imposed on two urban areas in Samut Sakhon.

Chanthaburi and Buriram joined the many other provinces and islands that require — in theory, at least — incoming travelers from dark-red and red provinces to be tested and/or quarantined for 14 days unless, in some cases, they’ve been vaccinated. Even Hua Hin, a beachfront city that relies heavily on short-term tourists from Bangkok, now has a 14-day quarantine rule for red-zone travelers.

With officials announcing and updating local travel restrictions through many different websites and social media pages administered separately for each of the 77 provinces, it’s become very difficult to keep track of the rules for each particular province. Perhaps the lack of a centralized list is by design, as the confusion might dissuade would-be travelers from heading out on leisure trips.

Desperation and adaptation

“We’re no less affected than you are, even more so actually because we have to make sure everybody can live through this period,” said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on June 28th, referring to “we” the government in relation to “you” the restaurant industry seeking help in the face of considerable income loss due to the dine-in ban imposed on Bangkok and eight other provinces.

Prayut’s words that day struck many restaurateurs, along with the millions of others experiencing economic distress, as mighty tone deaf.

As criticism mounts about the government’s handling of both the health and economic sides of the crisis, Prayut finally announced limited financial aid measures for the restaurant industry. How accessible the aid will be for workers who desperately need it remains to be seen. Left out, it seems, are many thousands of nightlife and tourism workers and small business owners who are struggling to survive.

Nightlife workers recently protested at Government House to draw attention to how “bars, karaoke shops and massage parlors have been closed since early last year, and the government had ignored repeated requests for financial assistance,” reports Bangkok Post. Bar operators in Phuket and Pattaya continue to plead for aid — or at least an end to the mandatory bar closures first imposed in April.

Sadly, some people are giving up. One of them was a beloved Bangkok-based singer, 30-year-old Prakaifa Pooldoung, who tragically took her own life last week. While the reasons for her suicide are not fully known, she made her financial struggles clear in a social media post back in May: “I’m a professional musician who’s been unemployed for two months. Every event was canceled. Income = 0.”

Others are still trying to adapt as best they can. As quoted in a terrific Thai PBS World story, Haruethai Kaewtumthong shared her outlook on the future after shifting from a travel agency job to cooking food for delivery in Khao Lak: “Hang in there and stay the course. One day everything will be the same as before.” 🌴

If you’ve found these reports useful, please help to keep them possible by making a $5 USD monthly contribution if you’re able. If you’d prefer to make a one-time donation in any amount, you can do so here. For a Thai bank transfer, please get in touch.