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When luck overtakes trust in pandemic times

It's hardly professional to issue contradictory advice on the excuse that situations change as we learn more about the virus

 Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: July 17, 2020 05:32 AM GMT

Updated: July 17, 2020 12:21 PM GMT

When luck overtakes trust in pandemic times

A health worker (R) takes a swab sample from a resident getting tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus near residential buildings in Mumbai on July 16, 2020.
(Phot: Punit Paranjpe/ AFP) 

One thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the need for trust.

We need to trust virologists, medical professionals, politicians and local authorities to give us sound medical advice and enact policies that benefit us all in the face of a potentially crippling worldwide plague the like of which has not befallen us since the Spanish flu a century ago.

Yet you may be forgiven for having lost trust in medical bodies and governments alike.
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Take the World Health Organization (WHO), which is routinely held up as an unimpeachable paragon of expertise and professionalism about matters pertaining to pandemics such as the outbreak of Covid-19.

Right from the get-go, WHO officials have vacillated, obfuscated and played politics. The United Nations-affiliated organization’s experts have routinely said one thing one day and the opposite the next.

Did the wearing of face masks by ordinary people help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19? “No,” we were told at first: such masks should only be worn by medical professionals dealing with infected patients.

Then weeks later we were told that you know what, maybe, face masks did work.

Then came the decree that we should all be wearing face masks in public, after all, and not doing so was putting the lives of others at risk.

Ditto the question of whether the virus is airborne. We were treated to the same progression of “no,” “maybe,” and finally, “yes.”

The excuse for offering us such contradictory advice has invariably been that once experts learned more about the virus and how it was transmitted, they changed their views accordingly. The trouble with this argument is that offering advice on scant evidence is hardly a mark of professionalism.

Besides, wrong advice can have dire consequences, as has proven to be the case. In early February, long after it had become apparent even to laypeople following the news that the novel coronavirus that appears to have originated in Wuhan, China, was spreading fast there, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, urged countries not to close their borders to Chinese travelers.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” Tedros said on Feb. 3. “We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

Within a couple of weeks, much of Europe was experiencing outbreaks of Covid-19 from Italy to Spain to the United Kingdom. So was New York City in the United States. Promptly, numerous countries closed their borders to international travel and instituted months-long lockdowns on their citizens.

This brings us to politicians, not least those in Southeast Asia.

For one, the government of Thailand has claimed credit, perhaps rightly so, for making sure that the country has remained largely free of the disease. To date, Thailand has had a little over 3,200 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with only 58 deaths, which makes for a stellar record in a country of 69 million.

Yet this success has come at a great cost to the country’s economy, which is expected to contract by anywhere between 5 percent and 9 percent this year. Millions of jobs have already been lost, especially
in the key tourism, services and manufacturing sectors. Millions of livelihoods have been destroyed primarily as a result of a three-month nationwide lockdown that is slowly being eased now.

You might argue that the impoverishment of millions of Thais, especially low-income earners, will have been a necessary price to pay for saving the nation from the ravages of a viral epidemic.

Yet late last week, an unidentified Egyptian air force official allowed into the country as part of a military delegation from the Middle Eastern country on a stopover while on their way to China tested positive for Covid-19.

During the trip, which was deemed to be official business, the group of 31 Egyptian officers was exempted from several entry requirements currently in place, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all foreign arrivals. Not only that, but they were allowed to travel on a day trip to the seaside province of Rayong in eastern Thailand where they moved about in public without restrictions, visiting a shopping mall and other places.

The fear is that the unidentified carrier of the virus, who has since left the country, may have infected several locals in a province where there have not been any locally reported cases of Covid-19 for two months. At the very least, the province’s tourism industry could suffer yet another blow.

“We are bracing for the impact,” lamented Chayut Chaitrakulthong, chairman of an association of local tourism business operators. “Businesses had just started picking up and were seeing solid bookings.”

But the case especially rankles since thousands of Thai citizens were stranded abroad for months as their government did not allow them to return home for fear that they might be carriers of the virus.

Those that were finally allowed to return were then subjected to state-imposed quarantines for two weeks, which was hardly child’s play, especially when they tested negative.

Meanwhile, it turns out that a foreign VIP and his entourage are not subject to the same strident rules that humble citizens need to endure.

True to form, Thailand’s military-dominated government refused to accept any responsibility for the fiasco at first, and instead opted to blame both the governor of Rayong and the Egyptian embassy in Bangkok, albeit it’s unclear how either was responsible.

After sustained criticisms by Thais voiced on social media, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an apology.

Yet is it any wonder that not many Thais have that much trust left in their government when it comes to handling the country’s affairs in the face of a global pandemic?


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