Thailand’s economy has seen growth in its recovery amid the global pandemic, but rising COVID-19 cases concern health experts.
Heavily reliant on international tourism to boost its economy, Thailand dropped its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated visitors in November, with thousands of arrivals flocking to the country since.
But along with the renewal of tourism in Thailand, new COVID-19 infections have also begun to accelerate throughout the country.
Dr. Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Thailand, has said the country is at a “crossroads” over what to do next.
“We are experiencing rising in omicron cases -- a very rapid one. The question should be how long we can expect it to slow down … it can be days or weeks or even months,” he told VOA.
“In my opinion, we are at the crossroads at the moment. The number of cases are rising but, to many doctors, the majority of them are still considered mild when compared to the delta wave,” he added.
Data show that the omicron variant is highly transmissible, has an incubation period of about five days and causes less severe symptoms than earlier variants.
Thailand saw a new daily record high on Friday, with 24,932 cases.
Last year saw strict curfews and social restrictions enforced throughout the country for months. However, after a speedy vaccination rollout – sometimes reaching one million doses administered per day – measures were eventually relaxed toward the end of the year.
Officials said on Monday that the economy rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021, with rising exports and the return of tourists. Year on year, Thailand saw a 1.9% increase in its economy, aided by the late wave of tourism. Nearly 500,000 people have visited since November.
With rapidly rising infection in the country, though, foreign tourists may think twice about entering, according to Stuart McDonald, founder of travel guide Travelfish.org.
“Should that be concerning for tourists? I would say yes. It is a rapidly changing situation and the Thai administration has a history of chopping and changing rules in an ad hoc, short notice, manner, and not always in a manner clearly informed by concerns for public health,” McDonald told VOA.
Thai authorities have changed entry requirements for tourists several times in recent months, including pausing its Test & Go plan in December following a rise in omicron cases.
The Thai government made further changes Wednesday to the plan, allowing fully vaccinated visitors to skip the quarantine period that is required by unvaccinated air arrivals.
As of March 1, fully vaccinated arrivals are now only required to take one PCR test instead of two when entering the country. Travelers must then wait for their results for up to 24 hours in a health-approved hotel before being allowed to travel elsewhere. Visitors must also take a self-administered rapid antigen test on the fifth day.
Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy. In 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and around 20% of Thais were employed in tourism, according to the Bank of Thailand.
Tourism businesses had previously asked the government to relax entry restrictions.
Authorities have recently ruled out any imminent new restrictions, including lockdown, despite recently raising the country’s COVID-19 alert to Level 4, the second-highest level. Masks are still required in public, while people are encouraged to work from home, cancel nonessential travel and avoid large gatherings.
Thailand now must focus on a plan to live with the virus, according to Pravit Rojanaphruk of Thai news site Khaosod English.
“The government can ill afford to impose another semi-lockdown as it has spent a lot of money over the past two years to remedy and contain COVID-19. It is hesitant because further restrictions would adversely affect the latest Test & Go scheme for arrivals from abroad and further harm the tourism and related industries.
“Increasing vaccination is the way ahead as the government has enough vaccines now for a booster shot. Children will be a particular target group in the weeks ahead but some parents are still reluctant. It's time to focus on normalising coexistence with COVID-19,” he told VOA.
Last month health officials began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds. According to Thailand's Ministry of Public Health, this age group includes 5 million children in Thailand.
But Jongkaewwattana raised his concerns still, “I'm quite worried in the increasing number of children who are infected and getting sick. Those kids are not vaccinated and they are more likely afflicted by the Omicron infection compared to the fully vaccinated adults."
The head of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University’s Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology, Dr Yong Poovorawan, warned that Thailand could soon see 100,000 people test positive per day.
Jongkaewwattana believes more can be done to mitigate the risks of infection.
“I believe in the use of technology to help the vaccine to slow down the spread of the virus. I suggest the government provide test kits to people so that they can monitor their risk. The use of masks in public must be emphasized and the activities that promote virus spreading should be prohibited."
An increase in the daily death rate could force the government into further action, he said. Thursday and Friday also saw 38 and 41 COVID-19 deaths respectively.
“The death case is now slowly rising and if the number reaches 50 or more the government may start something to bring the number down. If the number of COVID patients in the hospitals nationwide are at a certain limit, they will implement some restrictions. But I don't see a complete lock down or curfews coming very soon."
Thailand's health authorities have administered approximately 122 million doses, including first, second and booster doses. The country has recorded nearly 2.8 million COVID-19 cases with nearly 23,000 deaths since the pandemic began.