Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan sends this report on the impact that the Wuhan Coronavirus is having in Thailand.
The Chinese virus in Thailand
by H. Numan
Let’s call the beast by its real name, shall we? Incidentally, this is the second time China has infected the rest of the world. Without taking any responsibility for it. In 2002 we had the SARS virus going viral. In both cases it began in a fresh market. In both cases the Chinese government tried to look the other way for as long as possible. With the Coronavirus especially China does everything it can — that’s a lot! — to disassociate itself. Anyone (especially a man in a white house) who calls this virus by its true name is a racist. The measures China is taking are exactly what you can expect from a ruthless communist regime. Not to be admired, to say the least.
One of the first countries to enjoy the new Chinese export was Thailand. That was to be expected, with hindsight of course. About a third of the tourism industry relied (past tense!) on the Chinese market. That’s about twelve million arrivals. Once the virus really took hold the tourism industry effectively died. The one third of the market was forbidden to travel abroad. The remaining two thirds seriously reduced or changed travel plans. That means almost no arrivals at the airport. Empty hotels. Empty tourist attractions. Huge fleets of coaches standing idle. Tour leaders without work. We’re talking here about the livelihood of many millions of people.
Elephants are highly revered in Thailand, and no longer used for hard labor. Quite a lot of elephants are now kept in retirement camps, where they are taken care of and work with tourists. Usually by washing, feeding and interacting with the elephants. To a lesser extent rides on them. Only there are no tourists. An occasional Thai and a few farangs (=foreigners), but not enough to make ends meet. Elephants eat a lot. About 10% of their body weight daily. That’s roughly 360 kg of fodder every day, seven days per week. Many of those camps are in dire straits on how to keep the elephants alive. I have no idea what will happen. Will they be released into the wild? (That’s a horrible thought.) Will the government offer support? No idea.
Thailand is doing what it can to contain the virus. I happen to live in the center of Bangkok, in the diplomatic area (lucky me!). Central Chidlom is the most prestigious mall of Thailand. The guards at the door check everybody now for temperature. The bank next door also has a guard who sprays the doorknob every time a customer enters the bank. If you use the ATM, he cleans it. When I went to the immigration police, same story: everybody’s temperature was taken. From what I hear, roughly the same is done in the whole country.
Last week we had a bit of a stir when the minister of health, Khun Anutin Charnvirakul, tweeted that filthy western foreigners were the cause of the virus, as they never showered. It was because of them the ‘good Chinese tourists’ were now staying away. He had to apologize, which he sort of did. He hadn’t posted this on Twitter, but rather somebody else had. He was too busy to manage his Twitter account. In a Western government he would have had to pack his things immediately. All Western embassies did file complaints about his statement. But this is Thailand. Thus, his apology was accepted.
The country is in a nearly complete lockdown. Within the country you still can travel. There is no curfew. Yet. In many cities entertainment has been closed down completely. Some of it voluntary, some of it on orders of the local government. All borders are closed. New arrivals must show a health certificate not older than 3 days, and have valid health insurance covering at least $ 100,000. All large-scale activities have been postponed or canceled.
In a couple of weeks we’ll be celebrating Songkran or Thai New Year. All large scale Songkran activities have been canceled completely. Perhaps a blessing in disguise: The Songkran festival lasts a whole week. The death toll on the roads — Thailand is the second most dangerous country after Libya — is horrendous. Last year 386 people died during the “seven dangerous days”. Maybe this year it will be fewer… one can dream, can’t he?
The government is probably going to be lenient on people with expiring visas. Normally, the immigration police are draconian. One day overstay is allowed. For every other day, it’s Bt. 500 per day. That really adds up after a month. Not only that, but you will be blacklisted as well. If the overstay is under 90 days, you are not allowed entry into the kingdom for a year. If your overstay exceeds that, it’s 10 years. The minister for tourism is now talking with immigration to see what can be done for tourists who are stuck here. Many countries have closed their own borders, or the situation there is far worse than in Thailand. That’s not the fault of the tourist. So far, immigration is not forcing the issue. That’s good news for tourists who are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Thailand gets a lot of praise for how they are managing the crisis. The army and city workers clean up the streets. The 1st Guards division was charged with cleaning the area surrounding the Grand Palace. I’m not too worried about the Grand Palace. I find it open-air fresh markets far more dangerous. Those places are breeding grounds for rodents, bacteria and viruses. No idea how that’s being handled. I rarely go there.
What is worrisome is the effect on the global economy this crisis is going to have. Something you don’t hear enough about. Almost all airlines worldwide stopped flying or are on severely reduced (< 20%) schedules. That’s going to have a massive effect on anyone’s economy, no matter where you live. The airline industry works on razor-thin margins anyway. Many companies were already struggling. You can rest assured some, or more likely a lot of them, will soon have to file for bankruptcy. No airlines flying means hotels without customers. Lockdowns in many countries mean restaurants without business.
That will have a huge impact on anyone. I, for example, build websites with a reservation system for hotels. For the moment I can forget about getting any customers. Hotels without guests simply aren’t interested. And so on and so on. Even if by some miracle a cure can be found today, we’re still going to have a crisis rivaling the Great Depression. Please remember the pandemic Spanish flu lasted for two years. Times are different, but a vaccine has yet to be found. Once found, it has to be tested. All that takes time. We can only hope common sense prevails, and clowns like Frans Timmermans, the EU climate-czar, has to hand in his trillion-euro budget. We have bigger worries right now. However, common sense and the EU. Those are diametric opposites.
Apart from the corona (or Chinese) virus, we have lots of problems already. Erdogan tried to force Europe to accept his refugees. Or more accurately, he used them as storm troops to invade Greece. It didn’t succeed this time. Knowing Erdogan, he’ll try again. England left the EU. Other nations will have to cough up the missing income. Our progressive f(r)iends are bit quiet at the moment. Even diehard progressives can’t stomach their whining about being oppressed. We’ve got bigger worries on our plate right now. Doesn’t mean to say they have learned their lesson. They are waiting for a chance to strike again. Likewise, terror attacks continue. ISIS and Hamas don’t stay safely at home.
— H. Numan