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Thailand's Covid-19 Crisis: A Tale in Two Parts



This article is part of an Asia Policy roundtable examining government, public health, societal, economic, and international responses to Covid-19 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. The article focusses on Thailand and COVID 19 in 2020 and 2021.
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ailand’s Covid-19 Crisis: A Tale in Two Parts
Gregory V. Raymond
By October 2021, ailand had recorded over 17,000 deaths from
Covid-19, and its target to have 70% of the public double-vaccinated
was still months away.1 Like other countries, ailand’s Covid-19 story
has had many chapters with twists, turns, and setbacks on the journey to
“return to normal,” and the myriad individual experiences of hardship and
suering among its most economically vulnerable populations will probably
never be told. Partly because of its high reliance on tourism, ailand—the
second-largest economy in Southeast Asia and one of the more prosperous
states there—will likely emerge from the pandemic as one of the worst-hit
regional states by Covid-19.
The Health Impact and Response to Covid-19 in Thailand
Covid-19’s health impact in ailand was initially mild but changed
dramatically in 2021. In fact, 2020 and 2021 oer a tale in two halves: the
rst showing the strength of ailand’s healthcare and disease-prevention
infrastructure, and the second revealing weakness in planning for
worst-case scenarios.
Before the pandemic, the Johns Hopkins University rated ailand
as sixth in the world on pandemic preparedness.2 Over several decades,
ailand has created a decentralized health administration system that
is capable of acting locally with autonomy, exibility, and—due to prior
experience of epidemics such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
and avian u—eectiveness. When Covid-19 reached ailand in January
2020, the system needed no direction from the national government. At the
village level, ailand’s 1.04 million well-trained village health volunteers
1 Jonathan Head, “Covid reat Looms over ailand’s Plans to Open Up to Tourists,” BBC News,
October 2, 2021 u
2 Elizabeth E. Cameron et al., Global Health Security Index: Building Collective Action and
Accountability (Washington, D.C.: Nuclear reat Initiative, 2019), 20 u
gregory v. raymond is a Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian
National University (Australia). Dr. Raymond is the author of ai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic
Accommodation (2018) and the lead author of e United States-ai Alliance: History, Memory and
Current Developments (2021). His research interests include Southeast Asian politics, strategy, memory,
and national identity. He can be reached at <>.
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roundtable small-state responses to covid-19
swung into action, each reaching out to their ten to een assigned
households with relevant information on the virus.3 ese volunteers
managed close-contact cases, monitored individuals in quarantine, and
manned checkpoints. At the municipal level, local governments also acted
ahead of the national government, inviting local civil society groups to bid
for funds in support of health projects, such as those that taught citizens to
make masks and alcohol-based sanitizer and trained high school students
in hygiene.4
ese measures, together with restricting inbound international travel,
bringing patients into facilities rather than keeping them at home, and
closing all but essential businesses, were eective in containing the initial
strain of the virus. By the end of September 2020, ailand could claim that
aer 3,559 cases and 59 deaths, the only infected people were those who
remained in quarantine.5 Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World
Health Organization, was impressed, stating that, “ailand’s response to
Covid-19 oers a powerful example of how investment in public health and
all-of-society engagement can control outbreaks of deadly diseases, protect
people’s health, and allow economies to continue functioning.”
Sadly, this success in 2020—built on eective contact tracing,
community compliance, and comprehensive social distancing
measures—was not sucient to arrest the spread of new variants of
Covid-19 that emerged in 2021. ailand experienced reasonable success
in containing its second wave of Covid-19, which started at the end of 2020
among migrant workers at a seafood market in the province of Samut
Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok. But with the third wave, which
started in April 2021, the country entered a more desperate and dangerous
struggle against Covid-19. is wave began its spread from the Krystal
Club, an upscale nightclub frequented by politicians and diplomats. It
thus initially spread among ailand’s elite, and soon there was a marked
increase in daily cases and deaths.7 By May, ailand was experiencing
3 Hatchakorn Vongsayan and Viengrat Nethipo, “e Role of ailand’s Municipalities in the
Covid-19 Crisis,Contemporary Southeast Asia 43, no. 1 (April 2021): 21.
4 Ibid., 18.
5 World Health Organization, “ailand: How a Strong Health System Fights a Pandemic,” September
2020, 3.
6 Ibid.
7Aer Lavish Nights of Clubbing in Bangkok, a Covid-19 Outbreak,New York Times, June 6, 2021,
available ater-lavish-nights-of-clubbing-in-bangkok-
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ve thousand new cases a day, as many as it had experienced in the whole
of November 2020.8
e more infectious Alpha strain initially fueled the April 2021 surge,
and its spread puzzled ai virologists, who wondered how community
transmission had occurred despite ailand’s border controls, quarantine
system, and testing protocols.9 But worse was to come, because the even
more infectious Delta strain was detected in ailand by June.10 By July,
Delta was the dominant variant in the country, with new cases reaching
over ten thousand per day by mid-month.11
e Delta strain broke ailand’s model of containment and healthcare.
With nationwide vaccination rates at a paltry 5%, the virus surged through
poorer households.12 e hospital system was overwhelmed, and the fears of
every country’s government—public scenes of distress and disorder—began
to materialize. With a severe shortage of hospital beds, disturbing stories
emerged. On social media, citizens posted photos of Covid-19 patients
lying in a hospital parking lot next to biohazard dumpsters.13 As ambulance
services were overstretched, people were found dead on Bangkok streets.14
By mid-August, deaths from Covid-19 in the country reached over three
hundred per day.15
Like Australia and Vietnam, ailand’s government was lulled into
a false sense of security by its initial success in containing Covid-19,
and consequently it failed to adopt an adequate vaccine policy. Aer
2020’s success, ailand planned to source too few vaccines at too slow
8Aer Lavish Nights of Clubbing in Bangkok.
9 Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat epgumpanat, “ailand Braced for Infections Spike aer
Detecting UK Covid-19 Variant,” Reuters, April 7, 2021 u
10 “ai Virologist Warns Against Delta Variant as Covid-19 Deaths Hit Record High,” Asia
News Network, June 23, 2021, available at
11 “Delta Takes Over as Dominant Variant,Bangkok Post, July 20, 2021 u https://www. 1; and
Cod Satrusayang, “AstraZeneca Says ailand Only Requested 3 Million Doses per Month
in Initial Agreement,ai Enquirer, July 17, 2021 u
12 Mazoe Ford and Supattra Vimonsuknopparat, “As the Delta Variant of Coronavirus Rips through
ailand, Entire Households Are Being Infected,” ABC News (Australia), July 23, 2021 u https://
13Covid Patients Overow into Hospital Car Park as Cases Surge in Bangkok,Nation, July 16, 2021
14 “Health System in Crisis, Critics Tell Government,” Bangkok Post, July 21, 2021 u https://www.
15 On August 18, 2021, 312 deaths were recorded. “2019 Novel Coronavirus Visual Dashboard,
Johns Hopkins University, Center for Systems Science and Engineering u
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roundtable small-state responses to covid-19
a rate. In September 2021, leaked documents showed that the minister for
health had told AstraZeneca company ocials, the government’s principal
source of vaccines along with Sinovac, that it planned to vaccinate the
population at a rate of about 3 million per month.16 To vaccinate all
55 million people aged twelve and over, ailand would require 110 million
vaccine doses.17 At a rate of 3 million vaccines per month, ailand would
require eighteen months to achieve full vaccination of its entire adult
and teenage population. is slow rate is consistent with statements from
ocials at the National Vaccine Institute, who said in December 2020
that ailand only aimed to vaccinate half its population in 2021.18 As the
severity of the situation became clear, Dr. Nakhon Premsri, director of the
National Vaccine Institute, publicly apologized for the insucient vaccine
supply, citing the “unexpected situation” caused by the Delta variant.19
ailand’s planning had other complications as well. ai bureaucrats
have become increasingly risk-averse since Prime Minister aksin
Shinawatra’s administration (2001–6), fearing accusations of corruption
if they deal directly with the private sector. Out of this concern, ocials
did not want to sign a contract with U.S. vaccine manufacturer Pzer.20
AstraZeneca’s partnership with ai company Siam Bioscience to produce
vaccines in ailand was also met with complications. e partnership
aimed to develop ailand’s self-suciency in vaccine production; however,
Siam Bioscience, which is owned by King Vajiralongkorn (and hence above
criticism in ailand’s royalist political culture), was inexperienced in
vaccine production.21 Even more problematic, the deal stipulated two-thirds
of production be reserved for export and only one-third for local needs.22
16 Satrusayang, “AstraZeneca Says ailand Only Requested 3 Million Doses per Month in Initial
17 is is based on demographic data from the ailand Board of Investment stating that ailand’s
0–14 years demographic is 16.2% of its 66.19 million population. “ailand in Brief,” ailand
Board of Investment u
18 John Reed, “ailand to Vaccinate Half of Its Population in 2021,Financial Times, December 20,
2020 u https://www..com/content/c21638e3-453b-4ef5-ae91-6c249f784d.
19 “Health Ministry Apologises for Not Providing Enough Vaccine, Covax Talks in Pipeline,Nation,
July 22, 2021 u
20 Pavida Rananond, Somchai Jitsuchon, and Pasuk Phongpaichit, “ai Update 2021: Crisis
Management and Long-Term Implications” (presentation at the Australian National University
ai Update 2021, online event, August 24, 2021) u https://asiapaci
21 John Reed, “AstraZeneca Admits ‘Complicated’ ai Vaccine Production Launch,” Financial Times,
July 24, 2021 u https://www..com/content/1c54c222-98c6-4fc7-b43c-1b9115a27750.
22 Satrusayang, “AstraZeneca Says ailand Only Requested 3 Million Doses per Month in Initial
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Economic Impacts
e loss of tourism, which accounts for 11%–12% of ailand’s GDP,
combined with public health measures to combat Covid-19, meant that
ailand’s economy shrank by 6.1% in 2020.23 According to the World
Bank, its GDP was unlikely to grow more than 1% in 2021, and in fact,
the economy is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.24
Comparing tourism volumes before and aer the pandemic illuminates
the extent of ailand’s economic crisis. In 2022, ailand is predicted to
welcome a total of 1.7 million tourists.25 Before the pandemic, ailand
received more than this many tourists every two months from China
alone. e fourth quarter of 2020 reported only 50,000 tourists, 99.5% less
than the same period in 2019.26
As a relatively wealthier country, ailand has been able to oer more
scal stimulus to the public than many of its neighbors but still less than
the average levels in the West.27 In fact, although it is notoriously scally
conservative, ailand recently lied its debt ceiling from 60% to 70% of
GDP to protect jobs as growth slows for a sustained period.28
Still, the impact has been immense. Bangkok is a shell of its former
bustling self. Tourist precincts, like the go-go bars of Patpong, Soi Cowboy,
and Nana, were among the rst to close and now stand boarded up.
Similarly, the resort provinces of Phuket and Hua Hin lie deserted. Across
the country, some 100,000 restaurants vanished between January 2020 and
June 2021. 29 Even wet markets, a lifeblood for locals, have closed periodically
23 “ailand Loses 1.45 Million Tourism Jobs from Pandemic: Tourism Group,” Reuters, March 29,
2021 u
24 “World Bank Cuts ai GDP Growth Outlook to 1% is Year,” Reuters, September 28, 2021 u https://c/world-bank-cuts-thai-gdp-growth-outlook-1-this-year-2021-09-28.
25 Ibid.
26 Nalitra aiprasert et al., Revisiting the Pandemic: Surveys on the Impact of Covid-19 on Small
Businesses and Workers (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, May 2021), 10.
27 Roland Rajah, “Southeast Asia’s Post-Pandemic Recovery Outlook,” Brookings Institution, Order
from Chaos, March 15, 2021 u
28 “ailand Raises Public Debt Ceiling to Fight Covid-19 Outbreak,” Reuters, September 20, 2021 uc/thailand-raises-public-debt-ceiling-ght-covid-19-
29 ai PBS, “Mikhomun chak chomrom phuprakopthunkit ranahan raingan wa tangtae koet khowit
19 naipi 2563 chonmathueng tonni ranahanhaipai praman 100,000 ran ruelueaayu 300,000 ran
tae tha langchakni maimimatkanarai machuai tulakhom nachahaipai” [Information from the
Restaurant Business Association Reveals at since the Start of Covid-19 in 2020 until the Present
Approximately 100,000 Restaurants Disappeared and of the Remaining 300,000, If ere Are No
Assistance Measures by October], Twitter, June 5, 2021.
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roundtable small-state responses to covid-19
due to virus outbreaks.30 By September 2021, the number of people out of
work because of unemployment, reduced hours, and business interruptions
was around 5.3 million.31 e ai National Statistics oce put the 2020
unemployment rate at 2.0%, more than three times the long-term average
of 0.6%.32
e ai government has launched a range of Covid-19 relief programs.
e “Rao Mai Ting Gun” (“We Don’t Desert Each Other”) oered 5,000 baht
cash support per month for three months from April to June 2020 to
low-income citizens and was extended into 2021. e “Kon La Krueng”
(“Half-Half ”) program paid for half of household purchases up to 150 baht
per day. But some 90% of ailand’s informal workers, who make up 55%
of the labor force, had few options other than to borrow money.33 By 2021,
ailand had more than 5 million people across the country living on less
than $5.50 a day.34 e economic distress is seen in long queues for food and
rows of shuttered shops. Many ai people will not admit to suering but
say to themselves haichai bao bao (breathe lightly).35
Political Impact
During the pandemic, ailand has been wracked by widespread
and frequent public protests, many calling for the dismissal of the former
coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for reasons that include
his government’s mismanagement of the pandemic response. Under his
government, the ai police has been uninching in response to protests.
In the last year alone, ai authorities have laid some 486 charges against
1,171 protestors.36 Initially driving the protests were longstanding concerns,
especially among ai youth, about the entrenchment of authoritarianism
since the military coup in May 2014. In 2020, protestors broke through a
30 Marwaan Macan-Markar, “Pandemic Takes Flavor Out of Bangkok’s Grocery Shopping,”
Nikkei Asia, September 1, 2021 u
31 Pananond, Jitsuchon, and Phongpaichit, “ai Update 2021.
32Covid-19 Impact on ai Labor Market,” Open Development ailand, October 11, 2019 u
33 aiprasert et al., Revisiting the Pandemic, 20.
34 Panithan Onthaworn, “1.5 Million More ais Fell into Poverty in 2020, Over 5 Million Now
Living Under the Poverty Line,” ai Enquirer, July 15, 2021 u https://www.thaienquirer.
35 Author’s personal communication, Bangkok, September 2021.
36 “Latthi amnatniyom fueangfu” [Authoritarianism Is Flourishing], ai Rath, October 9, 2021 u
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“glass ceiling” when they explicitly and publicly challenged for the rst time
the ocial narrative of the monarchy’s separation from politics. In 2021,
the thrust of the protests shied toward economic issues, given Covid-19’s
impact on vulnerable youth. Whether Covid-19 will shi enough votes to
dislodge Prayuth’s party, Phalang Pracharath, before the next election in
2023 remains uncertain. In the meantime, opposition parties are seeking
to capitalize on this moment, with the ai Sang ai party ling a lawsuit
against Prayuth in the Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct
Cases that alleges breaches of the constitution, including for purchasing the
relatively ineective Sinovac vaccine.37
International Assistance
China has been a major partner for ailand during the Covid-19
pandemic. During the pandemic’s rst six months, China provided surgical
masks, test kits, medical N95 masks, and protective garments. is aid
has been met with gratitude. Of the approximately 130 ai respondents
to the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute’s “State of Southeast Asia 2021 Survey
Report,” 66% nominated China as the dialogue partner of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations that had provided the most help to Southeast Asia
for Covid-19. Only 4% identied the United States as the most helpful.38
ailand also started to receive vaccines from China in February 2021.
Sinovac served as a buer, while stocks of AstraZeneca, Pzer, and Moderna
gradually arrived through various avenues, including licensed domestic
production.39 By August 2021, according to the Chinese embassy in
ailand, 60% of ailand’s vaccine imports had been from China (Sinovac
and Sinopharm).40 China can portray this moment as another instance of
reaching out and assisting its Southeast Asian neighbors in crisis, as Foreign
37 Erich Parpart, “ai Sang ai Party’s Lawsuit against Prayut Collects 700,000 Names, ai
Enquirer, August 13, 2021 u
38 An average of 44% of all survey respondents from the ASEAN region nominated China when
asked which ASEAN dialogue partner had provided the most help to the region for Covid-19.
Sharon Seah et al., “e State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute,
February 2021, 13.
39 Gavin Butler, “How Sinovac Became the Poster Child of Anti-China, Anti-Vaxx Skepticism,” Vice
World News, August 3, 2021 u
40 Chinese Embassy Bangkok, “Khwamruammuedanwaksinrawangchinthaiphatnaayangtonueang”
[China-ailand Vaccine Cooperation Continues to Develop], Facebook, August 22, 2021.
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roundtable small-state responses to covid-19
Minister Wang Yi reminded his Southeast Asian counterparts.41 Unlike its
poorer neighbors Laos and Cambodia, ailand bought its Sinovac supply
rather than receiving donations.42 Given salient memories of Western
indierence in times of need, especially during the 1997 Asian nancial
crisis, China’s assistance may have long-term resonance.
At the same time, however, there is awareness that Sinovac’s ecacy is
less than that of the Western-made vaccines. In May 2021, an online poll
from Suan Dusit University of 2,644 respondents found Pzer and Moderna
to be the most trusted vaccines, followed by Johnson & Johnson and
AstraZeneca—Sinovac was not nominated.43 Overall, with Sinovac’s ecacy
in doubt but the vaccine at least available, China’s Covid-19 assistance to
Southeast Asia has been neither a raging success nor a conspicuous failure.
While Sinovac is the vaccine ais “love to hate,” it is credited by ai health
professionals as having signicantly reduced deaths.44
Long-term Effects
Most ais expect recovery from Covid-19 to be slow across the board.
e Bank of ailand does not expect that ailand’s economy will return
to pre-pandemic levels of growth until 2023, leaving scars on the tourist and
business sectors.45 A debt hangover will remain. One of the worst impacts
may be on the country’s youth. Bangkok closed its schools for four months
in 2021, and it is thought that as many as 15% of students will not return,
having dropped out of school.46 Although education is free until year nine,
parents facing unemployment struggle to pay other school-related costs such
as food and travel. is phenomenon will be a problem for all of Southeast
41 “Wang Yi Attends Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Celebration of the 30th
Anniversary of Dialogue Relations,” Ministry of Foreign Aairs of the People’s Republic of China
(PRC), Press Release, June 7, 2021 u
42 Ivana Karásková and Veronika Blablová, “e Logic of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy,Diplomat, June
24, 2021 u
43 Neill Fronde, “Suan Dusit Poll: Most People Will Get Gov’t Covid-19 Vaccine,” aiger, May 23, 2021
44Opinion: ailand Has to Gradually Stop Worrying about New Infection Numbers,ai Enquirer,
October 11, 2021 u
45 Panithwan Onthaworn, “Full Economic Recovery Not Expected until 2023,” ai Enquirer, June 28,
2021 u
46 Dusita Saokaew, “Covid-19: ailand’s School Dropout Rate Soars,” CGTN, July 8, 2021 uailand-s-school-dropout-rate-soars-
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Asia, and ailand will not be spared.47ailand’s income inequality is
likely to be exacerbated, which had already become so enormous by 2020
that it earned Prayuth the unattering title of “father of inequality” (bida
haeng khwamlueamlam).48
Nonetheless, in the long term, ailand still has critical assets for
recovery. e country’s favorable location, food surplus, potential for
renewable energy, and skilled workforce mean that it should be able
to return to economic growth of 3% per year. By the end of the next
decade, some economists believe that ailand could edge toward being a
high-income country.49
e advent of the highly infectious Delta variant saw ailand’s public
health model go from a showcase in 2020 to a basket case in 2021. ailand
is not the only country to err in taking an overly relaxed approach to
obtaining vaccine supply. Nevertheless, the impact has been particularly
severe because the slow vaccination rate has delayed the country’s broad
reopening, a serious consequence for a state as reliant on tourism as
ailand. ough the plunge in the economy is not quite as steep as
aer the 1997 Asian nancial crisis, this crisis’s global nature has instead
compounded ailand’s predicament. e scars from Covid-19 will be deep
and exacerbate ailand’s already polarized politics.
47Alarming Rise in School Drop-outs aer Extended Classroom Closures,Sydney Morning Herald,
October 2, 2021.
48 Polwut Songsakul, “Fai khan tangchaya Prayut ‘bida khwamlueamlam phunamhaengkankoni’
[Opposition Parties Name Prayuth “the Father of Inequality and the Leader of Debt”], Standard
(ailand), July 1, 2020 u
49 Pananond, Jitsuchon, and Phongpaichit, “ai Update 2021.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Attends Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Dialogue Relations
  • Wang Yi
Wang Yi Attends Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Dialogue Relations, " Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China (PRC), Press Release, June 7, 2021 u shtml.
Suan Dusit Poll: Most People Will Get Gov't Covid-19 Vaccine
  • Neill Fronde
Neill Fronde, "Suan Dusit Poll: Most People Will Get Gov't Covid-19 Vaccine, " Thaiger, May 23, 2021 u
Full Economic Recovery Not Expected until 2023
  • Panithwan Onthaworn
Panithwan Onthaworn, "Full Economic Recovery Not Expected until 2023, " Thai Enquirer, June 28, 2021 u
Covid-19: Thailand's School Dropout Rate Soars
  • Dusita Saokaew
Dusita Saokaew, "Covid-19: Thailand's School Dropout Rate Soars, " CGTN, July 8, 2021 u