Thailand and Cambodia rush to halt waves of Covid cases

Two south-east Asian neighbours face a challenge after keeping infection numbers low last year

After managing to control the coronavirus for much of 2020, Thailand is battling a fresh outbreak of Covid-19, with officials setting up thousands of beds in field hospitals and warning the public to stay at home.

A cluster of Covid cases emerged in Bangkok’s nightlife venues last month, just before the Songkran new year holiday, when many Thais travel across the country to celebrate with their families. Following record daily increases last week, tighter measures were introduced from Sunday, including the closure of schools for two weeks. Bars have been shut, restaurants banned from serving alcohol and the opening hours of shopping malls have been reduced in areas such as Bangkok.

Prof Anucha Apisarnthanarak, chief of the infectious diseases division at Thammasat University, said patients in the current wave, which involves the more transmissible strain first recorded in the UK, were presenting with different symptoms, including rashes and red eyes. Based on conversations with doctors, it appeared that about 40% of patients with symptoms developed pneumonia while in hospital – a much greater proportion than in previous waves.

Such patients required much more specialist support, placing additional strain on hospitals, he said: “In the next two or three weeks, if the cases are still increasing, we might encounter the situation that Spain or the UK or European countries encountered six month before, because we don’t have enough facilities for care.”

Almost 14,900 infections have been recorded since 1 April which, though a fraction of the cases recorded elsewhere, is roughly double the country’s caseload for the entire of 2020.

On Monday, a fourth field hospital was opened in the capital, at the Bangkok Arena sports centre, which will accept asymptomatic cases. Anyone who tests positive is asked to stay in a facility, to avoid spreading the virus further. Converted hotels will also accept patients with no symptoms.

Natapanu Nopakun, deputy spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, said it was hoped that measures introduced by various agencies, as well as the public’s cooperation, would soon have an impact. “In the next two weeks we may have a slightly different or better situation, hopefully,” he said. A further 1,390 new cases were confirmed on Monday, lower than the record 1,767 announced the previous day.

Neighbouring Cambodia is also rushing to contain a wave of infections that emerged late in February. Last week the prime minister, Hun Sen, said the country was “on the brink of death”, as 2 million people across Phnom Penh and Ta Khmau were placed under lockdown. Thousands of hospital beds have been set up in wedding party halls and schools.

Cambodia and Thailand were among several south-east Asian countries that kept cases low last year, avoiding the crises that overwhelmed health systems elsewhere.

Thailand was praised for its early and strict lockdown introduced last April which all but eradicated the virus, but the government has stopped short of re-imposing the same measures again, due to the steep economic cost. It now faces growing pressure over its vaccine programme, which, as of 17 April, had reached less than 1% of Thailand’s 69.8 million population, according to the tracking website Our World in Data.

The government’s vaccine strategy relies primarily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being produced locally by the company Siam Bioscience, and will deliver doses to the Thai government in June.

The government has been criticised for not securing vaccines from a wider range of sources. The banned opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has questioned the AstraZeneca arrangement, arguing the country was too dependent on Siam Bioscience, which he claimed was given an unfair advantage because it is owned by the king. He was later charged with lese-majesty.

Siam Bioscience did not respond to Thanathorn’s comments at the time, but has since said it is on track to deliver supplies and that its timeframe for production is similar to that of other AstraZeneca vaccine contract manufacturers in countries such as Australia and South Korea.

The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said last week that he was seeking supplies of the other vaccines.

According to Our World in Data, among south-east Asian countries, Singapore, a city state of 5.85 million people, has vaccinated the largest proportion of its population, with roughly 19% receiving at least one dose. Of Cambodia’s 16.72 million population, 7.5% have received at least one vaccine dose.


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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