The Thai prime minister has been applauded for successfully leading the country during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. But as cases rise and vaccine rollout falters, big business and ordinary Thais have unleashed their anger and frustration with the government.
The criticism has been fueled by the biggest increase to date in infections in the kingdom, which medical experts have bound to the faster spreading variant of the virus first identified in the UK.
The kingdom has ordered 63 million doses of the vaccine, most of which are produced by local company Siam Bioscience, which is owned by billionaire King. Maha Vajiralongkorn. However, locally made AstraZeneca jabs will only be available from June.
Thailand has also imported 2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine. As of Wednesday, Thailand had vaccinated only about 600,000 people, less than 1% of its population and a rate lower than that of most of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-exiled prime minister, intervened this week with an offer in an online chat to help secure Russian Sputnik V vaccines. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha rejected the opening.
But in the face of growing anger over the delay, the Prime Minister mentionned that Thailand was hoping to obtain 35 million additional doses of vaccine from “two or three” other producers, without specifying which ones.
Defending government purchasing decisions, Prayuth told reporters this week they had been developed “on the basis of the situation at that time, when we managed to contain the epidemic”.
Powerful Thai business groups, which are normally wary of fault in their public statements, this week called for stronger government action and offered to help.
Forty companies from the Thai Chamber of Commerce signed a declaration stating that the vaccination rollout was proceeding too slowly for the reopening planned country to international visitors this year, and that they were ready to help the government “connect the dots.”
Separately, Dhanin Chearavanont, Thailand’s richest businessman and honorary chairman of the Charoen Pokphand conglomerate, said Prayuth should allow the private sector to import vaccines.
In Wednesday’s announcement, Prayuth said the companies had offered to “ease the financial burden on the government” by funding 10 million to 15 million new doses.
“Our vaccine procurement program has been appalling,” said Cod Satrusayang, editor of the Thai Enquirer, an independent news site that has criticized the government’s vaccination efforts.
“If you compare Thailand to any other country with a similar GDP in our region, we are vaccinating at half that rate.”
Thailand’s initial public health response to the pandemic last year was good, Satrusayang said, thanks to a strong public health system that preceded the pandemic. But the government had “taken its foot off the pedal for the past three months”.
Any criticism of Thailand’s vaccination program is politically sensitive as Siam Bioscience is owned by the king, whose powers and wealth have faced a rare public challenge throughout history. demonstrations for democracy led by young people Last year.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the main opposition figure in Thailand, was accused under the kingdom’s strict lese majesty law to challenge the government’s vaccination strategy and what he called the “royal vaccine”.
The law, which was also used to bill several leaders protests last year that are in prison and awaiting trial, carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The pandemic has hit the Thai economy, causing a 6% drop in GDP in 2020 and emptying crowded beaches and hotels in a country where tourism generates nearly a fifth of economic output.
The Thai government had planned to start reopening of six tourist areas foreign visitors vaccinated from July 1, led by the tourist island of Phuket as part of a pilot program called “Sandbox”.
However, the timing of the program, which relies on mass vaccination of local residents, is in question due to the sudden increase in cases and the vaccine supply tight.
Thailand has reported 46,643 cases of the coronavirus and 110 deaths from the disease, a number lower than most countries its size.
However, the number of daily cases exceeded 1,000 for the first time this month and caused a stir after clusters of infections, including Saksayam Chidchob, the Minister of Transport, were reported at two nightclubs in Thonglor, a chic district of Bangkok.
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