It comes as the number of deaths in China has gone past 80 with 2,744 confirmed cases. However international experts continue to be sceptical about the official figures and the increasing rate of infection of the virus as it is now been transmitted by person to person infection. Overnight, in China, it is reported that half the new infections, of which nearly 60% were serious cases, where contracted outside Hubei province which has been in lockdown now since the middle of last week. 

The Thai Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, has strongly denied that the government is neglecting the safety of the Thai public in favour of the country’s valuable tourism industry as public concern and alarm grows over the danger posed by what is an accelerating emergency in China which even the Chinese President described on Sunday as a ‘grave’ challenge. Minister Anutin again has insisted that he was confident that the government’s Department of Disease Control can handle the emergency and that the situation, for now, is under control. The minister has also pointed to the need for a proportionate response to the threat.

The Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has denied that the government is prioritising the tourism industry but has argued that the response to the threat must be proportionate. He has again insisted that authorities are confident that the situation is currently under control as public concern in Thailand is mounting over grim reports from China where the outbreak is taking on horrifying proportions.

The public health minister, who insisted on Sunday that the threat of the Chinese coronavirus is under control, has pointed to the years of experience that the Department of Disease Control has in dealing with such outbreaks.

He has nevertheless pointed out that the government is in the process of ramping up measures to tackle the threat but felt that it was too early to be contemplating turning away tourists and travellers from China en masse.

Minister Anutin has also pointed out that the prime minister has given specific instructions that the Ministry of Health and associated agencies be as transparent and open as possible with the public as the emergency progresses.

Public criticism on social media of the government’s response despite the minister’s assurances

His comments come as there is rising public concern coupled with criticism of authorities online for putting Thailand’s tourism industry ahead of public safety on the matter.

The minister has revealed that the number of infections detected in Thailand has risen to 8 but that 5 have already been discharged including Chinese visitors who have already returned home. 

Currently, there are only three people in full quarantine.

Public Health minister reveals that most suspected cases have been discharged from Thai hospitals

The minister said that there had been 84 suspected cases with new ones coming to light in recent hours in the provinces of Nakhon Sawan, Rayong and Chiang Mai.

He also revealed that only 39 of the 84 suspected cases remain in isolation with the rest having been discharged.

‘China has imposed a lockdown. Hong Kong has suspended classes. Each country has its own conditions and plans to handle the situation. Thailand has done a really good job in handling a situation like this,’ the minister said as he urged people not to panic.

Visitors from Guangdong in southern China now being screened at Thai airports for the virus

Chinese tourists continue to arrive in Thailand with visitors from Guangdong province being screened with new checks also being imposed on visitors entering from Cambodia.

Strongly denied claims the government was prioritising the tourism industry over public safety

The minister replied to a growing chorus of criticism with a number of trending hashtags on Twitter with hundreds of thousands of tweets from the public expressing concern over the situation. 

The minister categorically denied that the government was prioritising tourism over public safety but also pointed to the possibility of further precautions and steps been taken as the threat is being constantly reviewed and managed.

This includes a national committee to coordinate the activities of government agencies.

‘If it reaches a point where public health is in danger, we will take action,’ the Public Health Minister insisted. ‘Detecting infected patients is a good sign because it shows that our system is efficient.’

Public concern over the grim news from China

The source of the public concern is easy to understand as matters across the border in central and southern China are growing decidedly grimmer.

The key concern among western medical experts is that China is downplaying the extent of the outbreak and more worryingly, that the transmission of the virus is growing more effective with person to person transmission.

Outbreak could end up worse than SARS – lack of trust in Chinese authorities spooking concern

One public health expert, in recent days, has pointed out that this outbreak could more infectious that the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 but with a lower mortality rate of 3% as compared to 11% for SARS. 

More or less infectious than SARS, a key question

However, there is some disagreement as to whether this virus is more infectious with experts complaining that current information on the virus is based on preliminary and incomplete data. Some experts this week have suggested that this disease is more infections.

The World Health Organisation on January 23rd, however, was ambiguous suggesting that it was being contracted via person to person transmission by coughing and sneezing.

The WHO estimates the R0 (rate of infected people per carrier) for the current virus is somewhere between 1.4 and 2.5 which indicates how many people are infected by each sufferer. This would be compared to 2.0 to 4.0 for SARs which was reduced to 0.4 when strict measures were introduced to curb that virus outbreak in April 2003.

The WHO figure is based on an exploratory analysis but there is a view among some experts that this outbreak is spreading faster and is more difficult to contain.

More cases being announced as serious 

What is being noticed is that more and more of the new infections have been revealed to involve more serious cases of the infection.

At this stage, experts do not know whether this is because of the inconsistency of figures coming from the communist government state apparatus in China or an infection that is growing more virulent and infectious with person to person transmission.

In Thailand, as of now, there has been no case yet of person to person transmission of the virus but that is no reason to be complacent.

Some international experts warn that up to 100,000 people may already be infected in China

At present, the Chinese authorities have now confirmed 2,744 infections but this is rising sharply and with over 80 deaths. However, some sources among the international scientific community now believe that there may be over 100,000 people infected.

Deaths now occurring outside Hubei province

Up to Thursday, all the deaths were confined to the central Chinese province of Hubei. Of the 80 deaths confirmed by Chinese authorities to Monday, 76 were in the province Hubei which is home to the city Wuhan at the centre of the outbreak.

However, figures from Chinese authorities overnight revealed that out of 769 new cases, only half of these were in the locked-down province containing 60 million people.

Face masks mandatory in some provinces and cities

This raises concern for other provinces. Chinese officials have ordered that the wearing of face mask in public be made mandatory in Guangdong, and Jiangxi provinces where over 160 people million live.

Thai government considering the evacuation of nationals from Hubei province and Wuhan

Meanwhile, the focus in Thailand has also switched to Thai students and spa workers stranded in Hubei province as other countries evacuate their nationals.

It is being reported that the Royal Thai Air Force has four C-130 aircraft on standby with medical teams to evacuate the Thai nationals from the ravaged area although reports from the Thai embassy in Beijing today point out that restaurants are still open in the province even though transport is restricted and inhabitants encouraged not to go out.

McDonalds is closed in Hubei

McDonalds, the popular US hamburger chain, on Friday confirmed that it had suspended operations in 5 cities in Hubei province because of the current medical emergency.

Chinese students told to delay return by 2 weeks

There is also concern about 7,000 Chinese students in Thai universities who have travelled home for the holidays to China. At present, they are being encouraged to delay their return for two weeks until the situation is clarified.

Strengthened hygiene regimes in public places

As well as bolstering screening and reviewing the situation with a view to elevating precautionary measures, it is also being reported that Thai transport companies and public facilities such as shopping malls are being encouraged to introduce heightened hygiene regimes.

Tourism Minister warns of a ฿50 billion loss while Health Minster points to a proportionate response

So far, the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has suggested the emergency has cost Thailand’s economy ฿50 billion in lost tourism revenue.

However, for now, we are told, that is not the primary concern of the government.  Minister of Public Health Mr Anutin is said to be focused on achieving an effective but proportionate response to the challenge.

‘Sometimes we take proactive measures and sometimes we are on the defence. We have to make sure our responses don’t affect people’s daily lives and economic systems,’ Minster Anutin said on Monday. ‘We can control the situation and are confident in our ability to handle the crisis.’ 

Further reading:

Government says virus under control in Thailand but the infection rate in China is worrying medical experts

Thai health officials vigilant as they brace for Chinese New Year tourists as new virus spreads rapidly in China