Thailand: Splashing Water On The Sars Fire


Glen Lewis

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's dominance of Thai politics remains relatively unchallenged some two years after his election. On 20th April, the opposition Democrats narrowly elected its older warhorse Banyat Bantadtan, instead of the more charismatic young Abhisit Vejjajiva, as their new leader. With a return to positive economic growth, some 5 per cent of GDP last year, and with the controversial but widely accepted 'war on drugs', however, the Thai-Rak-Thai party remains firmly in control.

Thaksin's recent problems have been more in dealing with dissidents in his own party; with threatening external events - the 'war on terrorism', the war in Iraq and Islamic militancy in southern Thailand; and now with the threat of the SARs (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic coming from southern China via Hong Kong.

The threat of the global spread of the virus by international air travelers poses an obvious danger to Thai tourism, one of the country's economic mainstays.

THAI Airways lost one billion baht between 17 March and 6 April due to the impacts of SARs and the Iraq war. The government's initial response was one of denial. Authorities argued that the WHO had not listed Thailand as an epidemic area.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Ministry of Public Health and Health Minister, Sudarat Keyuraphan, announced stringent quarantine measures. A team of masked medical officials was posted at Don Muang international airport to check suspected infected arrivals, and strict conditions were laid down on travelers from SARs-infected countries. These measures seem to have worked so far. Over 1000 people have been killed during the war on drugs, while at the same time only two have died of SARs. But now, with the return of many overseas workers for the Thai New Year and the possibility of catching colds during the Songkran water splashing festival, the WHO representative in Bangkok has predicted there could be a further outbreak of the disease.

To stem growing public fears, in a live TV broadcast Thaksin has promised one million baht (later doubled to two) to the family of any Thai who contracts the SARs virus locally and dies. He has also criticised the Thai media for spreading panic about SARs. As his government has brought the media under increasing control, this has compounded the current problem - people are less likely to trust the state-controlled media. The Thai public is also not well informed about health or scientific issues. For example, the supernatural origin of the Naga fireballs on the Mekong is still being seriously debated.

WATCHPOINT: Will SARs become a serious threat to the Thai tourism industry and endanger economic recovery?


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