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Bangkok building sites sealed off to contain Covid outbreak

A view of Bangkok's port amid the spread of the coronavirus in Bangkok. Photo from June 2020 by Athit Perawongmetha/ Reuters.

Thai authorities have shut down hundreds of construction sites and sealed off workers’ camps in a desperate bid to contain the country’s worst Covid outbreak


(AF) Thai officials announced new restrictions on Sunday centred on Bangkok and adjacent provinces in a bid to tackle the country’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

Construction sites in Bangkok and five nearby provinces – Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Pathom – will be shut down and workers’ camps sealed off for the next 15 days to contain clusters of the coronavirus, according to a notice published in the country’s Royal Gazette said.

The order follows complaints by officials that some people were failing to take precautions urged by the government, which officials say has led to the emergence of more than three dozen clusters in recent weeks in camps housing thousands of workers, many of them migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia or the Thai Northeast.

There are reported to be 575 sites housing about 80,000 workers in Greater Bangkok. These worksites have always been a risk factor for Thai officials seeking to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Experts have said the country’s long and porous borders, particularly to Myanmar, which has been in a state of chaos since the military coup on February 1, and Thailand’s long history of a rampant underground trade in workers that smuggled millions of impoverished citizens from Myanmar and other poor neighbouring countries (often by poorly paid local officials) meant the country would struggle to avoid severe impacts from the pandemic.

The government of former Army chief and coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha cranked up security on the 2,400-kilometre-long border with Myanmar, greatly restricting the never-ending flow of destitute people from that country. That helped the country enjoy a relatively low infection rate for more than a year. But officials in Bangkok may have lapsed in their oversight of camps housing the migrant workers that remain in the capital and the secretive brokers that ferry workers from site to site.

Many of these workers may not want to return to their homeland currently, given the worsening crisis there and what appears to be a slow descent into civil war. But living in crowded shanty towns made of plywood and corrugated iron, that offer little respite to the 40C degree heat currently being experienced prior to the advent of the wet season, means a dismal quality of life for now, until the evening game of takraw before the sun goes down.

However, the government says it will supply food and water for the workers. It will also extend building contracts and pay half of the workers’ wages while they have to remain in their camps. Troops and police will be sent to make ensure the workers don’t leave their camps for the next two weeks, a government spokesperson said.

Economic slowdown, hospital beds ‘full’

Prime Minister Prayut has reportedly been troubled by the economic impact that the pandemic is having on his country, which some observers say may be more serious than the ‘Asian financial crisis’ that rocked the country in the late 1990s, when more than 50 financial institutions collapsed and had to be bailed out by the central bank.

Health officials began a mass vaccination programme two weeks ago, but the supply of vaccines from local and foreign sources has been delayed and uncertain at times, which has meant just over 10% of the country’s 70 million people have received a jab, while the number of infections has failed to decline.

Health officials announced on June 22 that beds designated for patients in critical condition at state-run hospitals in Bangkok were fully occupied by people with severe Covid and the last 20 such beds had been strictly reserved for emergency patients.

A military camp in Laksi in northern Bangkok is now being turned into a field hospital for the increasing number of Covid patients and should be ready to accept patients by Friday, officials say, while major hospitals struggle with crowded intensive care units.

General Prayut, who has been in charge for seven years now, took a gamble recently, vowing that Thailand would fully reopen prior to the fourth quarter – with all businesses able to resume normal operations and visitors free to travel across the country.

“I am setting a goal for us to be able to declare Thailand fully open within 120 days from today, and for tourism centres that are ready, to do so even faster,” the prime minister said on national television on June 16. That was news that may have pleased people whose businesses have been ravaged by the epidemic but polls have shown that many citizens believe this is not possible and also risky.

Given this, and plans to reopen Phuket to visitors who have had Covid vaccinations this coming Thursday (July 1), the PM said on Friday he wanted to avoid the word “lockdown”, or restrictions that target specific businesses and activities to contain the virus.

So, authorities are now setting up checkpoints in Bangkok and the five surrounding provinces to limit travel and the relocation of building workers.

Checkpoints will also be set up in four southern provinces near Malaysia, because of a cluster in that restive region involving the Beta variant first found in South Africa.

The new measures, to be implemented for 30 days from Monday, include a ban on people eating in restaurants in the capital and nearby provinces.

Shopping malls in Greater Bangkok must be closed by 9pm, and parties or activities involving gatherings of more than 20 people will be banned for the same duration, the government notice said.

‘#BangkokLockdown’ was trending on Twitter in the early hours into Sunday, with internet users criticising the timing of the announcement and saying they were taken by surprise by the new measures.

Meanwhile, the Public Health department announced another 3,995 new infections and 42 Covid-related deaths on Sunday. That brought the accumulated death toll to 1,912 and the number of cases since the start of the pandemic to more than 244,000 people.

With reporting by Reuters

This story has been updated with new information.



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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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