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Rational Rationing

I was born at 3 am on a public holiday.  The timing was an immediate disappointment to my father. 

This can be detected by a close scrutiny of my birth certificate.  This records the date of my birth and the date on which my birth was registered.  The two are consecutive and family lore has it that my father was waiting outside the registrar’s office when they re-opened for business the morning after the holiday.

Why the rush?

What my dad really wanted was a ration book in my name, and he had to have my existence officially recorded before he could get that.  He was distraught that I had chosen to arrive in this world with such timing that he was obliged to support me for more than 24 hours without a ration book.

In those days, a ration book was given to every citizen.  It contained coupons, each for a fixed quantity of a commodity that you could buy during a given period.  It covered many of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and fuel.  You still needed the money to buy these things, but without the ration coupon, retailers were forbidden to sell to you.

The logic behind rationing is compelling and has motivated schemes whenever a serious scarcity of any commodity threatens to push the market price to a level that would leave the poorer part of the population starving, naked and freezing.  

It also allows extra resources to be channelled to wherever the need is greater, so in my infancy, coal miners got more food coupons than office clerks.

And if introduced and implemented properly, rationing can prevent hoarding, so that the already rich cannot gouge the rest of us as a way of becoming even richer.

Rationing is normally associated with wartime economies but has occurred in peacetime.  The 1970s oil crisis provoked even that bastion of free market capitalism, the United States, into a crude form of rationing, where you could fill your tank only on certain days depending on your car registration number. 

So rationing ensures a degree of equity, and allocates resources to where they are most needed.

So now think.  Is there anything today which is (a) important for general life and well-being and (b) scarce and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future?

And if you can’t answer that question, you obviously don’t live anywhere close to what the newspapers coyly call ‘entertainment venues’ in the Thong Lo area. 

Let’s look at what the government plans to do about vaccinating the population against Covid-19.

Current plans are for the major vaccination effort to start in June when locally-produced AstraZeneca vaccines from royally-owned Siam Bioscience will come onto the market.  Less than 1% of the population so far have been given imported vaccines, but it is expected that half the population will be vaccinated by year-end.  There will be stop-gap imports of a variety of vaccines but, apart from Chinese jabs which no one seems to trust, no guarantees that these will actually arrive.

But. There now exist more infectious variants of the virus, and even more are likely as time goes on. Some may not be controllable by the vaccines we now have.  And some of those in charge of the country have demonstrated appalling incompetence and arrogance (think Lumpini Boxing Stadium, think Krystal and Emerald, think superspreader casinos within hailing distance of police stations). The government’s vaccination plan looks perilously slow.

The priorities set by the government have not always been reassuring. The press pictures of the first vaccination in Thailand involved the Minister of Public Health baring his biceps. In the US it was a nurse; in the UK it was a 90-yr-old grandmother.  Get the message?

Most countries have prioritized vaccination by vulnerability, with the most common indicators being age, pre-existing health conditions and necessary contact with potentially infectious people (and this is not just health workers but also workers in public transport, food retail, law enforcement, etc.) 

Thailand adds 2 groups. One is ‘officials’ which could mean essential workers, but which we know also includes, for example, the Senate, whose work is so essential that every political party except Prayut’s wants to get rid of it, and border security personnel whose latest job seems to be very non-essentially spraying disinfectant on the 1500-mile Myanmar border. 

There have also been allocations by geography, which, in the absence of meaningful restrictions on movement, look a mite porous. In some cases this has meant sending jabs to hotspots like the shrimp market in Mahachai and the Khlong Toei communities, but in other cases seems to be a response to the loudest screams from tourist industry operators.

The government now seems willing to allow imports of vaccines to private hospitals who will jab anyone with the money to pay. 

There are already apologists in the media saying that this will help accelerate the date when ‘herd immunity’ can be achieved, even if those touting the idea seem to have a rather limited sense of solidarity with the ‘herd’.  It will relieve pressure on the government budget, they also say, since it won’t have to pay for vaccines for those prepared to pay for themselves.  And it will reduce waiting times for those whose economic hardship will force them to wait and hope, maybe for another year or more. 

So that’s a Good Thing, right?

If you’re sitting on a healthy bank balance, fretting about why you can’t get on the Bamrungrad waiting list and desperate for some rationale to justify your self-interest, maybe yes.

But for the rest of the country, it Just Ain’t Fair.  Why should the low-risk wealthy jump the queue over more vulnerable but economically deprived people?   Like those living ten to a room with jobs that have been cancelled from Covid?

If the government were (a) sensible (stop laughing at the back there!) and (b) had the wit and the will to stay in charge of controlling the virus instead of flailing around and wilting before every interest lobby, we could have fairness and equity.  We could achieve the best possible public health outcome.  And we could reduce the risk of death or chronic illness for everyone.

So what has the government done?  First, to the embarrassment of the nation (and the everlasting shame of his English-teacher wife), Prayut mangles the names of the vaccines he says we are going to get.  Then he forgets his mask in a meeting with photographers around and has to fine himself 6000 baht.

Having demonstrated firm command of the situation, he gets the cabinet to give him powers which previously belonged to ministers and bureaucrats.  And then he promptly abdicates these powers by ordering government agencies to help private firms take over vaccine sourcing and distribution. 

Now of course, private firms (whose concerns seem to be limited to their workforce and not the aged, the sick and the vulnerable) respond to reality as well as self-centred greed, so they quickly survey the vaccine market of missed deliveries, international lawsuits and an especially knotty problem of product liability.  And they promptly throw this hot potato back at the government.

The newspaper headlines now switch tenses and, instead of reporting what has happened, write headlines about what the government says is going to happen.  We will somehow get so many million vaccines and we have elaborate plans for distributing these vaccines that don’t yet exist. 

This is make-believe.  Someone has shown me their confirmation of an appointment to be vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine.  This vaccine has not yet even been approved in Thailand.  No Moderna vaccines have arrived on these shores.  No estimated date of arrival has been announced. 

What could ‘confirmation’ mean here?

But I think I know where this thinking comes from.  Why is Prayut so comfortable making plans with resources he simply does not yet have?

It’s what the military does all the time. 

The official number of men in uniform in the country is a phantasm.  It includes thousands and thousands of ghost soldiers whose physical existence is limited to a salary and a bank account (controlled by commanding officers who are only too real).  If the entire complement of certain military units were to actually materialize, they wouldn’t even have the barrack space for them.

Phantom soldiers, phantom vaccines.  It’s the same fairy tale.

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