I’ve lived in Thailand on and offer for ten years, so have a pretty good grasp on how things work here. That’s why I chose to stay in Thailand when the COVID-19 pandemic started. I felt that Thailand was one of the safest places to hunker down, and it was definitely the right choice.
As I write this (13 May 2020), today marks the first day since that outbreak began that there have been zero confirmed cases of the virus. As a bonus, there have also been zero deaths today, as well as an additional 46 patients that have left hospital. There are currently only 117 patients in hospital. Not so long ago it was over 1,000.
So how did Thailand manage to beat COVID-19? What follows in my personal assessment. I can’t prove that any particular measure helped, but taken as whole, it is obvious to me that many of these reasons must have contributed to keeping numbers low and finally getting to zero conformed cases in a day.
Thailand Took Early Action
Thailand had the first reported case of COVID-19 outside China on 13 January this year. This was no surprise, as around 10 million visitors from China arrive every year. Many thought this would mean that Thailand would be one of the hardest hit countries, but it turned out to be almost the complete opposite. Having the first case outside China meant that Thailand was also the first country to take action, via airport screening, contact tracing, etc. More on these will follow below.
Screening Incoming Passengers At The Airport
As far as I’m aware, Thailand was the first country to introduce health screening for passengers arriving at its international airports. The screening involved temperature checks and symptom screening. While this wouldn’t have caught all cases, it must have helped slow down the spread, as some people that were caught by this screening turned out to later test positive for the virus.
Screening At Local Hospitals
There was also screening done at local hospitals. There were temperature checks at the entrance, as well as a basic symptom and travel check. This is something that’s easy to do, yet most countries still don’t do it.
Wearing Face Masks
Thailand encouraged the wearing of face masks early on, and this is something that many Asian people do whenever they have some contagious disease, such as flu. There is much debate about whether face masks help slow down the spread of COVID-19, but to me it seems very obvious that it must be harder to catch the virus if everyone is wearing a mask.
If you cough or sneeze when you have a mask on, the droplets would be contained, compared to not wearing one. I don’t know why people in most Western countries are against wearing masks. Imagine getting on the London underground and being squashed together with thousands of other commuters without a face mask. Most Asians wouldn’t do that in the current circumstances, but Western people don’t seem to care.
From very early on we were told to wash our hands regularly, and alcohol-based hand gel was freely available at almost all cafes, restaurants and public places. This is something that is still ignored in many Western countries.
There were many public education campaigns aimed at at-risk people that showed them how to develop good hygiene, avoid crowded areas, wear face masks, etc. Officials also went out into the community to spread the message and had days where they handed out free masks and hand gel to people.
Residents returning from high-risk countries were encouraged to quarantine, and this later applied to foreign arrivals as well. All Thais currently returning to Thailand have to do a mandatory 14-day quarantine. This has caught a few cases of COVID-19; hence stopping further spread.
Closure Of Airports & Border Crossings
For the last couple of months, no tourists have been allowed into Thailand. This is a fairly drastic step, but it has certainly helped. Currently, all international passenger flights into Thailand arrive either without passengers or with just Thai returnees. The Thai returnees have to do a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Also, all land borders have also been closed. The flight ban is currently due to end on 31 May, although it’s possible it could be extended. Once the ban is over it’s thought that all arriving passengers will need to do a 14-day quarantine.
By contrast, countries like the UK still allow tourists to arrive without any checking at all.
While countries like Singapore and South Korea won plaudits for their contact tracing, this was also something that Thailand did from the beginning, although they haven’t been given the recognition that they deserve. Whenever they found a positive cases, all known contacts that the person had were followed up and put under observation. Countries like the UK don’t bother doing this at all.
As with many other countries, Thailand also had a lockdown. It some areas, such as Phuket, people weren’t allowed to leave the province, and later some were even confined to the small districts that they lived in. Inte-provincial travel was also discouraged, with police roadblocks set up around the country to check why people were traveling. Some provinces have a mandatory quarantine for visitors from certain high-risk provinces.
As well as the lockdown, there has also been a nationwide curfew from 10pm=4am since 3 April. It’s currently due to end on 31 May, although it could be lifted sooner. I think this was to clamp down on people partying into the night in groups.
The alcohol ban was very controversial, and was initially introduced during the Songkran holiday, as that is a time when almost the whole country is out partying. The alcohol ban aimed to stop that. It was later extended and lasted a few weeks. Restaurants still aren’t allowed to sell alcohol to drink on the premises, and all bars and clubs are still shut and will remain so for a while.
But Aren’t The Numbers Low Because Of A Lack Of Testing?
This is something that almost everyone seems to mention when they hear how low Thailand’s infection rate is. While they have tested less than countries of a similar size, such as the UK, I don’t think this is the reason for the low number of confirmed cases. If we use UK as a comparison, we can see that Thailand has tested around 4,000 people per million population, compared to almost 30,000 in the UK. This means that the UK has tested around 7.5. times as many people as Thailand.
So if we just multiple Thailand’s confirmed cases (3,017) by 7.5, we get around 22,700 cases. So even if Thailand had that many confirmed cases, it would sill be way behind the UK, which currently has over 226,000 cases.
It’s similar with deaths. Thailand has had 56 deaths compared with over 30,000 in the UK.
Thailand has recently increased its testing, and this month 34,444 people have so far been tested (to 12 May). Of these only 0.18% of them were positive for COVID-19. That suggest that not many of the population have the virus. To me this says that the lower number of tests isn’t the reason that we’re seeing a low number of confirmed cases.
Is COVID-19 Really Over In Thailand?
We can’t say that, although things are looking very good at the moment. Some restrictions were lifted earlier this month, and many more are expected to be lifted on 17 May. Despite the low infection rate, there’s obviously a chance of the numbers going up again, so we all still need to stay vigilant. When we’re out and about, almost everyone is still wearing masks and taking this seriously.
Currently 59 provinces out of 77 haven’t had any confirmed cases of the virus for at least 28 days. Nine of those provinces have never had a confirmed case.