People get Covid vaccines on May 30 at CentralWorld. Spiraling infections and jab shortages can lead to political upheaval. VARUTH HIRUNYATHEB
Thailand’s multi-layered crises, from persistent viral infections and vaccine shortages to economic damage, are turning into a potential political upheaval. The devastating Covid-19 crisis is worse than Tom Yum Kung’s infamous economic crisis of 1997-98. This time, the predominantly military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is stuck in multiple traps of its own making. Getting out of this predicament means that the pandemic situation is likely to worsen before any hope for recovery and a way forward can be found.
To put it into perspective, Thailand’s economic crisis of 1997-98 – which culminated in the floating and forced devaluation of the baht 24 years ago today – was catastrophic in its time. It all started with a financial sector crisis, made worse by central bank mismanagement and government incompetence. As the economy collapsed, financial companies and banks were shut down, some merged and sold to foreign entities, while many professionals found themselves unemployed. The ripple effects have upended the real economy, putting lower-echelon workers out of work and forcing them to seek social safety nets inside the country.
At the time, Thailand could resort to external borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while global demand provided respite for Thailand with a much cheaper baht to export its way to recovery. Along the way, the government of Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned in November 1997 to assume its role in the crisis and make room for an alternative team within the parliamentary process.
This time, Thailand must rely on its own resources and its ability to survive. As the ill effects of the pandemic are global, the global economy has suffered as a result. There is neither a quick exit for Thailand nor a rapid recovery for its economy. Instead of stepping down for a more effective leader to manage and get the country through this pandemic, General Prayut has vowed to continue on and on.
The first trap that General Prayut and his supporters set is to rig the rules after taking power to stay in the long term. As it stands, the 2017 constitution, which is the subject of a minor amendment rather than a genuine process of political reform, is being put in place to keep General Prayut in power indefinitely, unless his supporters do prefer an alternative. The election of the prime minister to the 750-member parliament must be based on the vote of the 250-member Senate, which was effectively appointed by the junta led by Prayut.
Continuity in power can be a boon if the leader has a plan that works well for the country. But settling down to rule for years with poor performance and zero vision could spell disaster for Thailand.
Other pitfalls came with the Covid-19 pandemic. To be fair, the performance of the Prayut government has been equally exemplary during the containment phase of the virus last year. But at that point, he had to come up with a vaccine strategy. Still, he tricked himself and put Thailand’s public health on the line late last year by entering into an exclusive manufacturing deal between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, a local pharmaceutical company that had never made any vaccines previously. Thailand was supposed to make hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca vaccines for its people and others in the region.
This could be seen as the singular gamble of the Prayut government and oppose other vaccines, including the US-made Pfizer and Moderna, which are now considered the most potent in terms of efficacy. Stuck with AstraZeneca’s bet coupled with production and delivery delays, the government needed to import more and more Sinovac vaccines from China. Due to ill-advised government deals, Thailand’s main vaccine at present has become Sinovac rather than AstraZeneca.
Getting stuck further, it turns out that the effectiveness of Sinovac might not be enough to deal with new viral mutations, especially the Delta variant. As several million Thais who have been inoculated with Sinovac are considered vulnerable to the Delta variant, there is a desperate need for effective alternative vaccines. When a third vaccine was suddenly allowed in by the Chulabhorn Royal Academy (CRA), it was Sinopharm, another Chinese vaccine. Considered more effective and earlier approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), Sinopharm is administered at a cost of around 1,000 baht per injection, resulting in a price inequality between the two Chinese jabs. Meanwhile, private medical institutions are scrambling to procure US-made vaccines to offer commercially for profit, although none have arrived.
The vaccine saga in Thailand is going from bad to worse. The editing questions met with few answers. For example, to what extent is the lack of highly coveted US-made vaccines in Thailand attributable to the Overseas Corrupt Practices Act? The FCPA prohibits US companies from making cash or in-kind payments to foreign officials. American companies and their executives face both jail time and fines for tea money under the table.
To be fair, AstraZeneca also operates under the UK’s equally draconian Bribery Act. As a UK company, AstraZeneca should get the benefit of the doubt under the law to be honest in its manufacturing deal with Siam Bioscience. Perhaps the Thai government also put its eggs in AstraZeneca’s basket so that it wouldn’t have to rely on rival vaccines. If so, it would be a government policy error and miscalculation, to the detriment of the risk to public health.
Other questions that still need to be answered include how and why Sinovac became Thailand’s leading vaccine. If it has to be Chinese, then why not Sinopharm? The fact that a Thai conglomerate is a business partner and investor in Sinovac makes the result questionable. If Sinopharm can be imported in the short term, then why not other more preferred vaccines, namely Pfizer and Moderna.
These questions form the tip of the iceberg in Thailand’s suspicious vaccine fiasco. The virus, vaccine, and variants are increasingly politicized, representing a microcosm of what’s wrong and happening in Thailand, from mismanagement and allegations of vested interests to health crises and public safety, politics and economics.
As the virus runs its course and more vaccines arrive in Thailand, it would not be surprising if the coronavirus pandemic ends up being a powerful catalyst for the kinds of changes and reforms that are expected in Thailand.
PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, he received a doctorate from the London School of Economics with a thesis prize in 2002. Recognized for his excellence in writing opinions by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.