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Thailand: Amid record Covid-19 deaths, authorities must offer vaccine rollout that prioritizes at-risk and marginalized groups

As Thailand battles its deadliest outbreak of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, Amnesty International calls on the Thai authorities to develop and implement an inclusive vaccine roll-out plan that prioritizes at-risk and marginalized individuals, with specific consideration given to groups that have faced historic discrimination, such as prisoners, refugees and undocumented migrant workers.

A protester at the protest on 18 July 2021 holding a sign saying "Where is the vaccine"

On 15 July, Thailand recorded 9,186 new coronavirus cases and 98 deaths, marking its deadliest day of the pandemic amid exponentially rising case numbers.

“As COVID-19 infections soar in Thailand amid a ruthless third wave, and with the nation’s healthcare system at risk of collapse, the authorities should urgently offer fair access to vaccines for all, prioritizing vulnerable groups and at-risk communities,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research.

Although the authorities have followed some of the World Health Organization’s recommendations by prioritizing healthcare workers and people aged over 60, corruption scandals have dented the response, with politicians at times prioritized over vulnerable groups.

“Preferential treatment of those with political influence raises suspicion of nepotism and erodes public trust in the vaccine programme. Authorities must urgently ensure that vaccine prioritization is transparent, and with effective participation of civil society groups representing at-risk populations.”

“The current distribution plan reveals systemic discrimination towards marginalized groups, such as prisoners, undocumented migrant workers, refugees, those living in poverty and homeless people. These groups struggle to access healthcare services, are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and are also at a greater risk of dying from the disease.”

Public health information must be made transparent to the public, and translated into languages that can be understood by major migrant groups, such as those from Cambodia and Myanmar. The state must provide access to credible, objective and evidence-based information that allows all people to understand the implications of government policy when it affects their right to health. This should include decisions made in relation to vaccine procurement or vaccine side effects that are likely to afflict certain groups with health conditions.

“Thai authorities must urgently revise its national plan to ensure a vaccination process that is non-discriminatory, fair, and accessible to all.”

Background

Thailand is facing its fiercest wave of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Bangkok, where the majority of cases have been recorded, remains the worst-hit area.

The country’s vaccine roll-out, which began in February 2021, initially focused on healthcare workers, essential service providers and people aged over 60. However, the process has been blighted by a lack of transparency in vaccine procurement and multiple delays. 

As of 14 July 2021, only 5.1% of the population – and only those living in the country legally – have been fully vaccinated, while 14.9% have received one dose, with Sinopharm, Sinovac, or AstraZeneca vaccines most commonly used.

On July 9, Thai authorities issued new restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19 as rising rates of infection threaten to severely impact economic, social and cultural rights. The new protocols cover Bangkok and nine provinces and include travel restrictions, the closure of malls and limits on social gatherings of five or more persons. People living in affected areas also cannot leave their homes between 9pm and 4am.

According to regulation no. 27, which came into force on July 12 under an Emergency Decree, violators of Thailand’s new Covid-19 prevention measures could face a maximum jail term of two years or a fine of up to 40,000 baht. This includes anyone sharing reports online that spur public unrest or fear, harm national security, or shed doubt on the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis, even if the information shared is factually accurate and in the interest of public health.

Between January and May this year, at least seven individuals, including political opposition and members of the public who expressed criticism of the government’s vaccine distribution plan, have faced criminal prosecution for offences under the Computer Crime Act, defamation by publication, and royal defamation under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the last of which carries a potential jail term of up to fifteen years.

Amnesty International maintains that introducing the threat of criminal conviction as part of virus prevention protocols is generally ill-suited to protecting public health while taking those who breach restrictions into custody merely serves to increase the risk of infection. Moreover, the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions by security forces often has a disproportionate impact on members of marginalized groups.

States must ensure that when placing limitations on the right to freedom of expression during the pandemic, they must also offer clear and accessible information about the laws used to enforce these changes and prove that such restrictions are necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health under international human rights law. Blanket prohibitions on the sharing of information do not pass this test.

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