Why have some countries in Asia not suffered to the same extent as countries in the West? Taking Thailand as an example, a few thoughts …
General context :
– A semi-autocracy in the guise of a democracy, so fewer complaints or obstacles raised by the general populace, that might hinder rapid and firm proactive responses from the authorities in confronting a national challenge of this kind. Voter opinion has never been a primary consideration, neither at the beginning of the crisis, nor during its development (although today, the precarious financial situation of a growing number of Thais is becoming a major concern).
– A strong social ethic encouraging mutual support still exists amongst Thais. To a certain extent they sacrifice personal interests in favour of (1) the family, (2) the local community, (3) the welfare of Thais in general. The logic of protecting those of fragile health or the elderly from Covid – that is a given. (Minor anecdote – a Thai who earns X, even if it is barely enough to feed a wife / husband / child, happily sends money to support parents / grandparents every month; it is a matter of pride. It is even considered a duty towards an aging generation in the twilight of their lives, with all the hardships that this can entail. An honourable act. On the other hand … try asking English, French, American children to make the same gesture, where elderly members of the family are suffering hardship…).
– The selfish behaviour that we see inexorably taking hold throughout the West – where we increasingly favour our personal whims and pleasures irrespective of pain and difficulty caused to others, emphasising and promoting ‘individuality’, irrespective of the consequences – has not yet really taken hold in Thailand. The same goes for this Western notion of the right to exercise ‘personal freedoms’ to do whatever you wish, no matter how destructive this may prove to the lives of others.
– Social customs – physical distancing existed long before Covid. No kissing, no shaking of hands. Greetings via a ‘wai’. Hygiene for Thais in a hot and humid climate is an essential consideration and it has always been so, long before Covid came on the scene.
– Luck has a role. Thailand had cases of Covid long before the West, but a combination of good fortune and rigorously applied preventive measures, with the cooperation of the people, brought it to a virtual halt. Despite the transmission rate being close to 0, the authorities have continued to enforce strict measures, without (so far) losing the support of the majority of the people.
– An excellent free health service, accessible to all, even the poorest in the community.
– Armchair/keyboard ‘Facebook-qualified’ infectious diseases specialists are not taken anything like as seriously as in the West. Thais on the whole still listen to and accept the opinions and advice of a consensus of experts, of scientists. It’s not especially a matter of intelligence, but rather a behavioural strength that stems from a questioning, yet still mostly cooperative society. Thais respect their elders, the opinions of professionals and educated people. Not blindly, but with a sceptical spirit – yet they resist succumbing to hypercriticism, conspiracy, paranoia – all of which are close to becoming the norm in the West today. Conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, are far less credible amongst Thais. Despite believing in ghosts, almost unanimously. But that is another debate.
In particular :
– They quickly accepted and continue to accept anti-Covid protective measures, forcefully imposed by the authorities from the start of the crisis.
– International border closures maintained for months, except for essential trips. Still in place, 90 days after the last Covid death.
– Wearing of protective equipment by all personnel in contact with the public, for example at airports, since the start of the crisis. Still widely enforced and carried out.
– A total halt to international tourism (to date), and which could remain the situation into 2021.
– Home quarantine at the start of the crisis, then shortly after in official and secure locations, for all returnees from abroad, without exception, for a two week period.
– Efficient contact tracing and screening procedures.
– A period of about a month where the sale of alcohol was prohibited during the confinement lockdown.
– Closure of “non-essential” businesses, bars, restaurants, clubs.
– Closure of schools, and since reopening, children all wearing masks from kindergarten age up. Without the slightest of issues, kids do what they are told to do. What teacher and headmaster say goes, end of discussion.
– Meetings, congregations above a small number, prohibited.
– A period of confinement which saw compliance by the vast majority of Thais, with roads blocked around cities / regions etc.
– Compulsory wearing of masks in public places, compliance by almost 100% of Thais (note that the Thai and Chinese alike, faced with air pollution, have become accustomed to wearing masks when necessary). You’ve got an itchy nose, so you think you’re entitled to a medical exemption certificate? You resent wearing it – it’s an attack on your personal freedom? Stay at home then. Or go to jail.
– In rural communities, lacking the permanent presence of health professionals, for many years and since well before Covid, a network of more than a million village volunteers across Thailand has been in place to deal with local crises. This semi-formal organisation monitors, informs and protects local inhabitants (see photos). At the slightest hint of a new Covid case, appropriate action is taken.
– ‘Retirement homes’ … what are these? The average Thai would be most surprised by this peculiar phenomenon. As a result, there are no excessive death rates in these establishments, because they simply don’t exist – except for foreigners of Western origin. Thai parents and grandparents are not thrown into some kind of internment camp for the elderly who have become a ‘burden’ to society, jettisoned by younger members of the family along the lines of “what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over”…
How many Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic in this country of 69 million? 58,000? 5,800? 580?
58. In total.
To sum up, Thailand – on the one hand, an accommodating, respectful but not submissive population, prepared to endure hardship in the interest of the majority. On the other hand, a government able and prepared to quickly impose protective measures, reinforced by prohibitive fines, and ready to enforce the closure of establishments that try to circumvent the law. A little luck mixed in, because the Thai authorities are far from perfect, and have not always reacted in the most practical or effective manner. Corruption often throws a major spanner in the works …