The world’s COVID-19 pandemic is infecting hundreds of countries and cities globally. Since early January 2020 the COVID-19 outbreak has had a severe impact on global health with 935,022 cases and 47,245 fatalities. The situation in Thailand is worsening since the initial cases of SARS-CoV-2 were reported many months ago. Various provinces throughout Thailand recently began responding with hard or soft lockdowns. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency on March 24th amidst the flurry of provincial lockdowns. On April 2nd a nationwide curfew from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM was announced and will be enforced with soldiers and police. Individuals who do not work in vital industries or have permission to travel are expected to stay home.
Cases, Testing, and Forecasts
As of April 7th there are 2,258 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in Thailand. 824 have recovered, 1407 are hospitalized, and 27 have died. The actual number of individuals infected with the virus are likely much higher. Like much of Southeast Asia, testing for SARS-CoV-2 remains a challenge due to lack of lab capacity. The number of confirmed cases has doubled within the last 11 days, but the accurate rate of doubling is unknown without an increase in testing capacity. CMMID hasn’t modeled Thailand, but assumes an extremely high R0 (likely as high as 2.9) in neighboring Malaysia.
PCR testing capacity within Thailand remains low at 353 tests per million people. As of March 31st there are 57 labs in Thailand which are authorized to process SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests, with 40 more labs undergoing certification. Through the “One Lab One Province – 24 hour reporting” project the Thai government hopes to have 110 public and private labs certified to process PCR assays. The immediate goal is to process 10,000 assays a day from Bangkok and the surrounding areas and another 10,000 from the other provinces once the 57 labs being certified begin testing. As of Saturday April 4th Thailand had tested 71,860 samples from 25,857 patients since the outbreak began, with a likely positive rate of 9%. There are wait times of three to four days to receive a PCR test, and many PCR assays which have been collected often wait untested for days at a time. As in the Philippines, there appaears to be a massive backlog in testing.
Thailand had one of the worlds first confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside of China. Official cases of COVID-19 remained low, but unofficially Thai authorities had investigated many suspected SARS-CoV-2 cases in the intervening months. On March 21st Outbreak.Asia published a report from the Consortium of Thai Medical Schools. They calculated that if no efforts were made to combat the virus that within the next 30 days 351,792 people would be infected. Of these cases 52,792 would require hospitalization with 7,039 patients succumbing to the virus. If an effective lockdown were put into place infections could be reduced to 24,269 and deaths could be reduced to 485.
In early March a “National Health Security Office (NHSO) committee gave the green light for Covid-19” response to be a part of the country’s renowned universal coverage. The NHSO budgeted ฿1 billion baht for COVID-19 tests, with a further ฿2.5 billion baht if the initial amount is not sufficient. ฿6.2 billion baht was budgeted to pay for medical equipment used to combat the virus. Additionally, Thailand has joined the WHO in a global “Solidarity Trial”. Authorities have been working to secure extra hospital beds for infected patients and are confident that so long as they can COVID-19 related hospital admissions below 1000 per day they can avoid a crisis situation. While the system seems to be holding strong for now, in the absence of social distancing measures it could easily become overwhelmed.
A Looming Recession
The recently declared state of emergency banned foreign nationals without diplomatic or work permits to the country and closed Thai borders to neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia. This had the effect of further harming the already damaged tourism, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors of the economy. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) calculated that airlines may burn up to US$61 billion of their capital reserves by June 2020 while posting quarterly net losses of about US$39 billion. On the top of unavoidable cost, airlines are burden of refunding sold but unused tickets to customers as a result of massive cancelation. Seven Thai airlines (Bangkok Airways, THAI Smile, Thai VietjetAir, Thai AirAsia X, Thai AirAsia, Thai Lion Air, and Nok Air) are reportedly seeking a ฿16 billion baht bailout from the Finance Ministry. The airlines hope to secure long term loans, increase liquidity and get payroll subsidies to keep their employees while their services are suspended. The pandemic also impacts hotels and shop owners. Without assistance many will be forced to layoff their employees.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic The Bank of Thailand is projecting a 5.3% contraction in national GDP. In response the Thai government borrowed ฿1 trillion baht as a part of a ฿1.9 trillion baht fiscal stimulus package. The package includes:
- Compensation for water and electricity by 3% for the next 6 months (expected spending of ฿5.16 billion baht)
- Support for medium and small business with ฿500 billion baht in low-interest loans
- Debt moratoriums on loans under ฿100 million baht
- ฿600 billion baht in health related plans and financial aid
- As a part of this financial aid a ฿5000 baht monthly handout has been extended from three months to six for the countries estimated 9 million self employed and laid off workers affected by the pandemic
To lower the volatility of government bonds the Bank of Thailand purchased ฿100 billion baht during 13-20 March 2020. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Ministry of Finance, and the Bank of Thailand also set up a ฿70-100 billion Corporate Bond Stabilization Fund (CBSF) to invest in high-quality bonds by corporates to assist in debt rollover. On top of all of that, The Ministry of Finance promised more effective plans between April and July.
Many Thai’s are staying at home in response to social distancing measures imposed by the government. This has led to an expansion in profitability of delivery and e-commerce services. Many food delivery workers are reporting a doubling of orders since the pandemic began. The food delivery sector, already fast growing, is expected to be one of the few industries which benefit from the outbreak, along with the medical industry, health and life insurance, hygiene and sanitary services, and other digital technology platforms.
Thailand is one of the major rice exporters of the world. At the beginning of the year Thai rice exports looked to be in poor shape as a strong baht and previous drought led to a poor 2019 for the agricultural sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed things dramatically: rice prices are at their highest point since 2013 and competing rice exporters India and Vietnam both face export disruptions. Despite recent events leading to an optimistic outlook for the industry, the pandemic could pose trouble for Thailand and the countries that rely on its rice exports. Unlike other sectors, the agriculture industry is “heavily affected by the timing of the lockdown rather than the duration” due to the strict planting-harvest schedule. If Thai workers fall ill or logistics are disrupted by the lockdowns, a bad planting season could ruin the harvest for the rest of year. Similarly, if the country began stockpiling rice like other southeast asian countries in response to the pandemic many people throughout the region could go hungry.
Despite the dire economic and health outcomes predicted, there is still hope to minimize the damage caused by the pandemic. 70% of thai’s are adhering to the social distancing measures proposed by the government according to a recent survey of 26,000 by the Department of Mental Health. If 80% of the populace can successfully socially distance itself during the various lockdowns then there is hope that by April 15th estimated cases could be limited to 7,745 rather than the more dire predictions. To quote Dr. Kiattiphoom Vongrachit, Director General of the Department of Mental Health, “Social distancing is a very powerful tool to fight against Covid-19 and this weapon needs the engagement of all Thais.”