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COVID-19 Crisis Response under Thailand’s Authoritarian Approach

Viengrat Nethipo is an associate professor of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University

The entire world faces the COVID-19 outbreak all at once. Yet, the ways states, societies and people around the world respond to the crisis vary.

Each country's quality of life and standard of living may have affected the management of the outbreak to a certain extent, but they are not the sole contributing factors to success. In fact, several other factors also play a part in the success or failure of a state. In response to the crisis, Thailand employs an authoritarian approach, with an agenda of seeking to gain benefits from the situation. Despite the approach being effective in controlling COVID cases early on, the authorities seem to struggle as the problem drags on. The short time that has elapsed reveals a crisis on top of a crisis arising from several emerging issues during the ongoing outbreak.

From Success in 2020 to Failure in 2021

During the first year of the pandemic, Thailand stood out among other developing countries, keeping new cases at bay. The situation was against the backdrop of the authoritarian regime lacking legitimacy in many ways, having risen to power as a result of the 2014 NCPO-staged coup. The continuing intense protests against the government by young men and women are evidence of the deep-rooted issues in Thai politics. However, between April and May 2021, the virus spread at a faster rate from the fast-surging third wave, deepening worries. Whilst Thailand was coping with the challenge, other countries sped up their vaccination programs, with several of them successfully distributing vaccines across various population groups. The question of which vaccines are the best for the population, with the budget in mind, sparked off a debate in many countries. Thailand, on the contrary, encountered no vaccine choices, delayed vaccine deliveries, and insufficient vaccines, leaving the elderly and most of the population bewildered, not knowing when they will receive their jabs. On the other hand, those in power and well-connected or those working in an agency that could “find” the vaccine had already been vaccinated. 

Thailand, on the contrary, encountered no vaccine choices, delayed vaccine deliveries, and insufficient vaccines, leaving the elderly and most of the population bewildered, not knowing when they will receive their jabs.

How the authorities cope with the crisis while benefiting from it reflects the Thai sociopolitical structure, both in light of what appears to be reality and what is happening below the surface. As such, I have raised questions about last year’s success in keeping infections under control versus this year’s questionable handling of vaccines. Specifically, Thailand got a vaccine with the lowest efficacy for a similar price as other vaccines. Many people who had received their jabs are not in vulnerable groups or target groups. Delayed vaccine production by a Thai company also posed a problem. What do these issues tell us about Thai politics? From my perspective as someone who studies the relationships between the central government and local authorities and local-level politics, particularly government activities concerning the people, let me draw your attention to the structure of power in handling the COVID-19 outbreak through two different laws. To depict a clearer picture, in my case study, I will compare how Thailand manages the crisis with Australia, a country successful at curbing the COVID-19 outbreak from 2020 so far. Australia’s politics, society, and structure of power are not at all the same as Thailand. But it is not an overstatement to say that the standards of Australia’s law enforcement and political management are exemplary. Their crisis management is consistently in alignment with the country’s institutional structure and in accord with the laws. This explains why Australia’s strategy to tackle the pandemic runs systematically and predictably, so people can clearly examine relevant government agencies’ capability. This is a sharp contrast to Thailand, where factors have from time to time interfered with the established structure, and, therefore, are not in alignment with the institutional structure. Also, Thailand’s crisis handling shows a lack of transparency, a dismantling of the governance hierarchy, and a failure to uphold the public institutions. 

Communicable Diseases Act: When Power is Dispersed among Various Agencies

On 13 January 2020, Thailand was the first country where a COVID case was reported outside China. The country continued to record more cases throughout January, all of which are travellers from China. On 31 January 2020, the first locally acquired case was confirmed. In February, the number of infections was still small, with only 40 cases in total.

An existing law ready for implementation is the Communicable Diseases Act B.E. 2558 (2015). The Act took effect when the Ministry of Public Health declared COVID-19 a “dangerous communicable disease” on 26 February 2020, leading to the establishments of the National Communicable Disease Committee, the Bangkok Communicable Disease Committee, and the Provincial Communicable Disease Committee of each province. Under the law, the power hierarchy emphasises provincial administration, giving the power and autonomy to provinces, as important local administrative units. The law treats Bangkok as a province, as a local administrative unit with more autonomy than in a normal situation. The prime minister chairs the National Communicable Disease Committee. The Bangkok governor chairs the Bangkok Communicable Disease Committee. Each provincial governor chairs the Provincial Communicable Disease Committee of their province, with the municipal mayor as a committee member.

The Act allows us to see the potential and capability of each administrative unit, authorising all provinces and Bangkok to impose and implement their directives independently. For instance, we witnessed some problems surrounding the shortage of masks. In March 2020, the prime minister imposed a ban on stockpiling of masks, which led to subsequent arrests of small retailers for selling overpriced masks. However, in mid-March, amid a domestic shortage of masks, 5.6 million masks were found [to have been permitted] to be loaded for shipping overseas. In a separate instance, the government directed immigration police to implement tougher measures to tighten airport screening. Still, ineffective implementation of the screening measures, which was caused by officials lacking experience and possibly insufficient budget, made the news. 

On the other hand, we observed quick responses to the crisis at the provincial level. For example, with Bangkok becoming the COVID-19 epicentre with growing clusters, the Bangkok governor imposed Bangkok “lockdown” before the central government declared a state of emergency. After the Lumphini Boxing Stadium cluster broke out on 6 March 2020, the country recorded over 100 new cases daily, the number of which continued to rise. Later, on 16 March 2020, the governor of Buri Ram Province ordered the closure of its border to counter the spread of COVID-19, followed by the closure of many routes to several other provinces by their governors. 
At the provincial level, the public health system played a significant role in monitoring the situation and bracing for more patients. At the same time, local administrative 

Act, by conferring power on disease control committees, disperses the authority to make decisions and allocate budgets among various local government agencies, utilising the local administrative units’ expertise. The outcome of the strategy reflects the levels of the capability of the central authority and the local authorities.

organisations were instrumental in curbing the spread of the virus. In my municipality-level research, I found that city municipalities performed a vital role by using their workforce and local networks and joining hands with Village Health Volunteers (VHVs) in various forms of collaboration to enhance the provincial capability where needed. Examples were monitoring crowded and high traffic places, e.g. bus terminals, markets and food distribution points, and monitoring vulnerable groups in the local community to protect them from the risks posed by outsiders. I found that municipality-level political groups all worked hard towards their mission of COVID-19 prevention. They did so for the maximum benefits of the local people, anticipating that a municipal election will take place soon, albeit not knowing when the election will take place or at which municipal level it will be. Although the wider public may not recognise the role of local political networks, the locals, as voters, appreciated their hard work from their first-hand account. 

Authorities conduct the COVID-19 screening at Nong Khai provicnce (File photo from the Public Relations Department).

In my opinion, the credit for the successful control of COVID-19 across Thailand at the provincial level in 2020 must go to the local networks and communities, on which I hope to elaborate on other occasions. My key point here is to show that the Act, by conferring power on disease control committees, disperses the authority to make decisions and allocate budgets among various local government agencies, utilising the local administrative units’ expertise. The outcome of the strategy reflects the levels of the capability of the central authority and the local authorities.

However, some inconsistencies in the strategy implementation emerged at a later stage. The directives from the government and the Bangkok governor frequently contradicted one another. Sometimes, the Bangkok governor exercised his power, only to be contradicted by the central government afterwards, despite the governor having complete autonomy over his jurisdiction under the Act.

CCSA – an Information Control Centre, Rather Than a Disease Control Centre

Now let me revert to the central government. On 12 March 2020, by the Cabinet’s resolution, the prime minister announced the formation of a body called the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) whose duty is to develop policies and urgent measures to manage the COVID-19 crisis. From then on, the Centre has been the central body to provide directives for and communicate with the public and enforce a harsh law, the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation B.E. 2548 (2005), in controlling the people.

The appointment of the CCSA and the enforcement of the Emergency Decree are based on the authoritarian model, particularly regarding control of information. Although giving constant updates helped raise the public awareness and resulted in active public cooperation with the government, the centralised CCSA portrayed the crisis with an emphasis on case numbers and ways to reduce the numbers. But the Centre lacked collaboration and connection with the people and concealed the hardship the people endured as a result of the government measures to control the infections in 2020. Because communications were monopolised by the CCSA, we did not hear about the success at the municipal or community levels. Even government agencies with strong capability like public health agencies did not receive straightforward briefings. The success was attributed to the CCSA and the government. This one-way communication did not make the people aware of what contributed to the success and the work that was directly related to them. 

The appointment of the CCSA and the enforcement of the Emergency Decree are based on the authoritarian model, particularly regarding control of information.

Having exercised its power for some time, the CCSA, with full authority from the prime minister, exacerbated the problem when it issued directives without considering the Communicable Diseases Act. The Act empowered the Bangkok Communicable Disease Committee and the Provincial Communicable Disease Committees to decide for their jurisdictions. However, the CCSA started giving orders directly to heads of agencies and administrative areas from the end of 2020 without going through the communicable disease committees, leading to confusion among the public. 

How do they do it in other countries? Let’s look at Australia.

When we look at how Australia manages the same crisis, we could see that being a federation is the crucial factor that allows Australia to decentralise its power to a full extent. The mechanism in place can handle the situation with consistency in accord with the law, which prescribes the duties of each level of authority, with no agencies interfering in each other’s affairs. The major drawbacks of decentralisation are some difficulties for a federal government in ensuring that all states’ practices are consistent with the federal government’s and some conflicts of interests between states, especially in countries comprising several states, such as the US and Germany. For instance, conflicts among the German states led to the Angela Merkel-led federal republic government passing legislation to pull the power concerning lockdown and other control measures back to the federal government. However, Australia does not have many states. Giving autonomy to state governments through decentralisation rather than the opposite has allowed smoother and more effective crisis management for the past two years.

Being a federation is the crucial factor that allows Australia to decentralise its power to a full extent. The mechanism in place can handle the situation with consistency in accord with the law, which prescribes the duties of each level of authority, with no agencies interfering in each other’s affairs.

 Australia had a confirmed COVID-19 case on 25 January 2020. The government used the Biosecurity Act 2015, legislation roughly from the same time as the Thai Communicable Diseases Act, to control the disease. On 18 March 2020, the Australian government declared a human biosecurity emergency. The declaration gave the Minister of Health power to issue directions and set requirements to combat the outbreak. The federal government broadly provided support to states and territories in two forms: 1) resources and finance as required by the state governments and 2) coordination arrangements with the state governments. Such arrangements established a mechanism for the federal government and the state governments to work in tandem and share information with each other in their responses to the public health crisis. In this regard, the Secretary of the Department of Health was appointed to coordinate across the governments. 

The federal government broadly provided support to states and territories in two forms: 1) resources and finance as required by the state governments and 2) coordination arrangements with the state governments.

The responsibility for area controls, therefore, rests with the state governments. Where there is a threat jeopardising the people, property or public security, the state governments can exercise power to declare a state of emergency. Under a state of emergency, the state governments can decide to impose orders and measures to counter the outbreak. These include making masks mandatory in public places; closing public venues, e.g. schools, libraries, public facilities and businesses; arranging COVID-19 testing; contact tracing; administering quarantine; and imposing lockdown – a mandatory order by the state governments to be implemented as they see fit.

On 27 May 2021, for instance, the Victorian Government announced a statewide lockdown of all non-essential activities for a week following a spike of 26 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Periodically, each state issued its interstate travel restrictions; some were strict while some were lenient as appropriate to the event. These restrictions were announced by the premier of each state after the consideration of the state-level disease control committee. A state committee comprises representatives from relevant departments, including the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Department of Home Affairs, and representatives from the state police forces. 

Also playing a crucial role is local government, the lowest level of government and the closest to the people. Notwithstanding having no power to declare a state of emergency, local governments ensure proper enforcement of the regulations in line with the federal and state governments’ emergency response plan. They also collaborate with the state government to develop readiness, implement applicable measures, and communicate information to the community. Their work includes closing public facilities and displaying signs for the response measures put in place. This shows that local government’s role is to implement the policies in practice as it works at the frontline closest to the community, similar to the work of Thailand’s local administrative units.

Summary 

In conclusion, Thailand’s Communicable Diseases Control Act disperses power among various levels of government, enabling us to see the capability and incapability of each level of government. We observed questionable actions at the central government level but a competent contribution to the robust responses to the pandemic by other levels of government, especially the local administrative units and village health volunteers. By force of habit under the authoritarian leadership style, the central government has exclusively controlled information and increased the power of its central body by jumping the hierarchical structure, confusing people about the exercising of power. You might think that a crisis will make government agencies stronger, but Thailand has proven the opposite, with its agencies becoming weaker in the hands of the government. Such practice will inevitably serve as a model to dictate the country’s future. We can see a clearer picture when comparing Thailand with a country that has exercised its power systematically like Australia. With Australia’s systematic consistency and transparency, people can predict the government’s direction in battling the crisis. Effective management and political control of the crisis will help people determine how their country will continue along the path of democracy.

This article is part of the Comparative Assessment of the Pandemic Responses in Australia and Thailand, supported by the Australia-ASEAN Council under Australia-ASEAN Council COVID-19 Special Grants Round, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

For more updates on our project, please visit: 
Website: https://www.austhaipandemic.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AusThaiPandemic

Translated by Duen Sureeyathanaphat (www.translatethai.com.au)
 

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