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Holidays Again in Phuket for the Brave, But It Is No Holiday for Migrant Workers

22 Jul 2021
By Dr Gavan Butler
People snorkelling in Phuket. Source: Fitri Agung

Tourists have returned to the islands off Southern Thailand, amid surging COVID-19 infections. Meanwhile, the Thai government’s response to the third wave has severely affected all workers, in particular legal and illegal migrants within Thailand.

The Bangkok Post has presented a very alarming and gloomy picture of Thailand over the past few days.  Over the 24 hours to 8:00 am on 21 July, Thailand registered a record total of 13,002 new cases of COVID-19 and 108 deaths. The number of new infections may be significantly understated.

The numbers of both new infections and deaths have grown markedly in the last few weeks. Since the beginning of the third wave of infections in Thailand in April, over 400,000 people have been reported as newly infected, of whom approximately two thirds have recovered. At present, all of Greater Bangkok, plus four other provinces adjoining Greater Bangkok, are locked down and under a night-time curfew. Outbreaks of COVID-19 have also occurred in other provinces around Greater Bangkok. Flights between Bangkok’s airports and airports in other provinces in which there are high rates of infection have been suspended. The noted commentator Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote on 16 July that “Thailand’s vaccine rollout is evidently a complete shambles due to questionable procurement, supply shortage, and misallocation amid a deadly surge of the Covid-19 ‘Delta’ variant,” and went on to call for “a national inquiry for public accountability.”

On 18 July, in the face of continuing government bans on protests, younger Thais took to the streets again to call for the removal of the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, and to protest what they see as the failure of the government adequately to manage the country’s response to the pandemic. The event was reminiscent of protests a year ago, although the number of protesters did not seem to be as large.  There were, however, some 2,000 police. Video of the street protest was broadcast via Facebook by The Reporters. Protesters began their walk at Democracy Monument and turned into Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue, heading for Government House. They were first thwarted by water cannons stationed on Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue but then peeled off onto an alternate route to approach Government House from another direction. There too they were thwarted, this time by a line of police minibuses parked across the route. The protest ended at about dark.

Just as in Australia, there is much fault being found in the vaccine roll-out. There have been two vaccines deployed to date, Sinovac and AstraZeneca. There are now extensive claims that the protection offered by Sinovac degrades within weeks and thus requires early boosters. AstraZeneca is produced locally by a company owned by the king. It has been suggested that the government was pressured not to permit the import of other vaccines. However, recently the Chulabhorn Royal Academy, a public, non-profit institution named after and associated with the king’s sister, Princess Dr Chulabhorn, has begun to import and sell Sinopharm at over AUD60 for two doses, and shipments of Moderna and Pfizer are arriving. A recently leaked letter indicates that the Head Office of AstraZeneca insists that it is contractually obligated to supply only a portion of the number of doses which it earlier had said it will supply. This, then, is the setting in which tourist arrivals have resumed to the island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea.

Indisputably the tourist industry in Thailand is essential to the Thai economy, accounting for at least 20 percent of GDP. In Phuket, the percentage may be as high as 95 percent.

The Phuket experiment is known as the “Phuket sandbox” and began on July 1. Arriving tourists must remain on the island, supposedly quarantined from the rest of Thailand for fourteen days but free to roam the island. Beyond that period, they are to be able to travel to other destinations in Thailand, provided that authorities at these destinations approve. The visitors have to be fully vaccinated on arrival in Thailand, must obtain a special entry permit from the consulate in their country of origin, must submit to COVID-19 tests before boarding their aircraft and periodically after arrival in Phuket, and are to be monitored using an app after their initial 14 days in Phuket. Tourists must be able to show that they have adequate health insurance coverage. The Thai government is said to have approved some 63 countries as acceptably low-risk countries of origin. Among the people on Phuket itself, COVID-19 infections had climbed above ten by the beginning of this week, including one infection with the Delta variant. Three islands in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, and Koh Tao, initiated on 15 July a scheme (Samui Plus) broadly comparable with the Phuket sandbox but considerably more restrictive. The resort area of Pattaya is said to be planning an opening to foreign tourists in September but has a long way to go to reduce its rate of infections to an acceptable level.

The movement of tourists beyond Phuket and Samui Plus will be limited drastically by local authorities because of high rates of COVID-19 infections in many provinces throughout Thailand. More particularly, it will be limited by the availability of health services, especially intensive care units (ICU). The impact of the present high rate of local infections on the demand for ICU is already worrying health officials. It is also possible that everyday services for tourists will be affected by the plight of legal and illegal migrants on whom the tourist industry depends.

That plight is severe. As far as even legal migrants are concerned, there is a lack of information in their own languages, especially as to where to find free COVID-19 testing and where to go for vaccinations (free or otherwise). Rates of infection among migrant workers from Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Myanmar are higher than among Thai nationals. Migrant workers from Lao and Cambodia are able to return home, but for the foreseeable future, this option is not available to the much more numerous Myanmar workers.

Illegal workers, the number of whom is well in excess of one million according to some observers, are in a much worse situation. The Thai government late last year enabled illegal workers to stay in Thailand on special permits and to work. However, it is not clear to me (on the basis of my own contacts with illegal workers from Myanmar, or of reportage in the conventional media), that workers on special permits can be tested for COVID-19, let alone vaccinated, at the state’s expense. There are evidently many illegal immigrants without permits who are hiding in migrant communities, dependent on relatives or friends for the most meagre and precarious of existences. With the current lockdown in Bangkok, many small businesses have closed, informal sector trading and services have shrunk, and opportunities for migrant workers to earn an income have evaporated.

Thailand has never been “a land of smiles” for migrant workers from neighbouring countries. It certainly is not now, and I would guess that it is not too easy to crack a smile if you are a tourist.

Dr Gavan Butler is an honorary associate in political economy at the University of Sydney. He is also a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Australian Political Economy.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.