HomeCommentary'Clinging to the ill lion': Thailand and the coronavirus fallout

‘Clinging to the ill lion’: Thailand and the coronavirus fallout

“A tiny ant can sometimes help a big lion or elephant.” Those were Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s words to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, after the “brothers” agreed to boost trade and investment ties in “allied megaprojects.”

Some viewed the Thai PM’s words, said in November last year, as a botched reference to Aesop’s Fable of the Lion and the Mouse, in which the smallest of creatures is able to benefit the king of the jungle.

Nonetheless, Prayut expected the bilateral trade engine to “speed along like a long-tailed boat.” For years, the two countries have grown closer on the economic front.

Bilateral trade was $73.67 billion in 2017 and it was projected to double by 2021.

Last month, China for the first time became Thailand’s top source for foreign direct investment, submitting applications valued at 262 billion baht ($8.5 billion) — more than half of the FDI total.

Chinese visitors, Thailand’s largest — and most lucrative — tourist segment, reportedly contributed 580.7 billion baht in 2019. More arrivals were projected for 2020.

Then the new coronavirus erupted in Wuhan, China, spreading to 28 countries, infecting more than 80,000, and killing over 2,700 as of Feb. 25.

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The vast majority of those infected are in China while Thailand has reported 40 people being infected.

While this is ongoing, China is struggling to get back to work and Thailand faces major economic headwinds. Just as the outbreak was getting underway, one Thai commentator asked if “the mouse” was “clinging to the ill lion with faith in its self-healing power.”

Shoppers wearing face masks at Bangkok’s Siam Paragon Mall as coronavirus spreads on Feb. 3. (shutterstock.com photo)

Numbers game

Like other countries heavily-linked with China economically, the effect of the virus is expected to be dire, especially for what had already been a sluggish economy.

In 2019, tourist arrivals to Thailand surged to 39.8 million. Including indirect spending, the industry is estimated to account for 20 percent of the country’s GDP.

But in the heavily trade-dependent economy, a strong baht, shrinking exports, flooding in the northeast, and public expenditure kept GDP growth capped at 2.4 percent that year.

That was Thailand’s slowest GDP growth rate since a military coup d’état in 2014. For 2020, experts now see storm clouds on the economic horizon. For while tourism could withstand a China-U.S. trade war, the coronavirus outbreak has been an entirely different matter.

A recent report from Thai PBS  noted the heavy toll the virus has taken on tour operators in the country.

With nearly a third of visitors to Thailand (over 10 million in 2019) hailing from China, the fact that Chinese arrivals have plummeted from 30,000 to 3,000 per day, has left many in the tourism industry in dire straits.

Just consider the numbers.

Speaking with the Thai Enquirer, Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), estimated that each and every one of those Chinese tourists spends 50,000 baht ($1,575) per trip.

TAT expects foreign visitors to fall by 5 million this year, resulting in a loss of 500 billion baht ($15.7 billion).

The National Economic and Social Development Council — Thailand’s economic planning agency — has slashed its 2020 forecast to 1.5-2.5 percent from an earlier projected range of 2.7-3.7 percent.

Others, including the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, the Bank of Thailand, and the Ministry of Finance followed suit.

This has provided Thailand further impetus not to close its borders.

Amid concern over coronavirus, people in Bangkok wait to buy a mask on Feb. 7. (shutterstock.com photo)

Staying vigilant

While many who make a living from the tourism trade have expressed more concerns about economic woes than viral fears, others have accused the government of prioritizing the economy over public health. And the manner in which this sentiment has been expressed, at times, has been anything but delicate but the country has been, quietly, preparing for an emergency.

A worst-case coronavirus contingency plan was reportedly passed on Feb. 18, according to the Bangkok-based news site Khaosad English.

Measures under that “phase three” plan include setting up military field hospitals in schools, making remote work mandatory, postponing or canceling large public gatherings, and designating emergency disaster zones in the worst-affected areas.

Thailand is currently in phase two. On Feb. 24, however,  health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the National Infection Control Committee was mulling a plan to raise the status of the new coronavirus outbreak. This mass infection stage would, for example, prevent those at risk of contracting the virus from receiving medical treatment.

“Thailand’s situation has not yet reached the peak stage, but we have to be prepared and stay vigilant amid concerns over possible quick spread of the disease as it occurred in South Korea,” he said.

Although the situation remains fluid, currently it is Thai tourism authorities trying to smooth rough waters while the kingdom’s Public Health Ministry advised Thais to delay traveling to Japan and Singapore, and not vice versa. 

Likewise, school children who have visited China, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, or Vietnam within the last two weeks are being asked to stay home from school.

Thai authorities are banking on their ability to stave off a public health crisis. Their efforts very well might prove successful. Managing the economic aftershocks, however, is an entirely different matter.

Thais wearing face masks for protection against pollution and coronavirus in Bangkok on Feb. 3. (shutterstock.com photo)

Political prisms

Thai’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, however, goes deeper than just health-related anxieties. As in any society, public policy is viewed within preexisting political prisms. And with the current regime viewed as illegitimate by many in the opposition, its policies will de facto be viewed as outside of the public interest.

That belief has only been inflamed with the recent dissolution of the Future Forward Party, further underscoring the perceived “faustian bargain” that has been struck between the mouse and the lion.

Responding to Prayut at the time of the mega project talks, Chinese Premier Li stressed the fraternal relations between the two states.

“China and Thailand are rowing in the same boat. We are like close brothers. We will move forward together with a bright future waiting ahead,” he said.

Now, as that boat appears to be stuck between the devil and the deep sea, just how bright the future will be remains to be seen.

William Echols has a decade of experience as an international journalist, having worked for a number of outlets, including Voice of America and the Bangkok Post. He currently works as a writer and editor at LiCAS.news. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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