South African variant was confirmed, on Monday, as having been detected already in Bangkok as the country is now at the start of the 4th wave of infections which one medic at Siriraj Hospital, last week, predicted could see case numbers above ten thousand per day. Monday saw 5,406 cases announced with 22 deaths.
As Thai authorities imposed selective lockdown measures in Bangkok and in four southern provinces, the plight of the country’s 2 to 3 million migrant workers moves into the spotlight with 575 building sites secured and sealed by the military with a crisis erupting over hospital beds on Saturday when migrant workers were refused short term access. The situation has led one migrant rights activist to call for a simple and blanket amnesty for all illegals in Thailand right now or what he termed a ‘reset’ in order to foster cooperation and understanding between officials and this mobile population who pose a real and significant challenge to efforts to control an emerging and more serious outbreak.
The Thai government, over the weekend, moved to address the crisis as what appears to be a 4th wave of the virus emerges with consistently high daily reported infections and deaths since mid-June and fears that clusters within construction camps and businesses which use migrant workers, are growing.
The moves came as, on Saturday, military personnel and armed forces dispersed throughout the capital to secure and seal off 575 construction sites as well as in four adjacent provinces which are home to over 81,000 migrant workers.
Top public health official denies discrimination against migrant workers after the sick were dropped off for treatment over a chaotic weekend
The scale of the emergency and the critical nature of it was seen on Saturday night when Dr Somsak Akksilp, the Director-general of the Department of Medical Services, was forced to deny his under-pressure agency was discriminating against migrant workers after an order was issued preventing their admission to already overstretched hospitals and field hospitals in and around the capital.
Reports suggest that several unscrupulous employers had shamefully left ill workers at government care facilties causing panic and confusion.
‘I insist the department has no bias against migrant workers,’ declared Dr Somsak as he acknowledged the situation. ‘Hospitalisation is available to every nationality but currently, there are too many Covid-19 patients waiting in the queues.’
Proper protocols including screening required
The medical official warned that proper protocols must be applied and followed including planning and screening before patients were admitted to hospital facilities as otherwise there was the real risk of further infection and chaos which would undermine the already burdened network.
Dr Somsak was among those, over the last few days, who was calling for urgent action to deal with the emerging crisis and critical shortage of hospital beds and ICU treatment facilities.
Doctors in Bangkok are making critical medical calls with a shortage of ICU beds and increasing demand
With over 42,000 people currently hospitalised of which over 1,450 are in a critical state with nearly 500 requiring ventilators, it emerged over the weekend that as few as 20 ICU beds were available in the public health system in Bangkok with doctors confirming they are resorting to triage in deciding who to admit to highly sought after ICU beds.
On Monday, the number of infections was 5,406 with a top medic last week warning that infection levels beyond ten thousand per day can be expected with the Delta variant (B1617) gaining traction.
Dr Nithiphat of the Faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital, said that at the current rate of growth, this latest wave could well begin to exceed four digits or leave the country’s infection rate at over 10,000 per day.
This indicates just how difficult the situation is right now for doctors, front line medical staff and those with responsibility for keeping the public health system functioning.
Decisive government action over the weekend can still backfire – reports of people moving out of Bangkok
The decisive action, over the weekend, which some observers say may yet lead to unintended and perverse consequences, sparking an exodus of migrant labour and the public carrying the new Delta variant of the virus from Bangkok, came after comments from the government spokesperson Apisamai Srisangson on Friday critical of some migrant workers in the capital for not cooperating with officials.
She explained that efforts to impose ‘bubble and seal’ measures that had worked so well in Samut Sakhon, had failed in Bangkok because the migrant workers in the metropolis had consistently defeated the orders and regulations issued by officials.
‘In Samut Sakhon, we had workers and staff stay within their workplaces, observing the ‘seal’, and within 28 days the outbreaks ended and the people could return home and resume normal life,’ she explained. ‘But in Bangkok, the situation in workers’ camps, markets and factories is completely different. Bangkok cannot end its clusters within 28 days partly due to the factor of cooperation.’
Desperate migrant workers living from hand to mouth are forced ignore public health regulations
Exasperated officials found that many workers simply moved from one closed down camp to find employment elsewhere driven by the need to earn a daily living causing clusters of infection to grow in worksites, factories, markets and in certain areas of the city.
On Friday night, the Prime Minister led the announcement of the latest moves which swung into action over the weekend including Saturday’s limited and targeted lockdown measures for Bangkok which are to take effect from Monday.
Unfortunately, the sudden and necessarily without notice moves by the governments including establishing roadblocks in Bangkok and surrounding provinces has sparked what officials fear most.
That is a panicked exodus from the city as many workers and residents anticipate further restrictions and public health control measures may ensue.
Government gives assurances that there will be no full lockdown of Bangkok as the situation deteriorates
Officials working for the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) however have made it clear that a full lockdown of the city has been ruled out due to the consequent economic repercussions with the government now working with limited financial resources, but also the fear that it will only serve to spread clusters of infection including the Indian or Delta variant which is known to be circulating in the construction camps of Bangkok at the centre of these emergency efforts.
The Delta variant is 50 to 60% more infectious.
Medical experts are predicting that the Bangkok Delta variant will almost certainly now emerge as the dominant strain in Thailand replacing the B1617 or Alpha strain which triggered and drove the 3rd wave and which led to over 240,000 infections since April and a rise in the number of dead to 1,934 as of Monday.
There were 5,406 new infections to open the week while on Sunday, the country reported 3,995 new cases and 42 deaths with a rising seven-day average to 3,715 cases.
Monday sees South African variant confirmed as having arrived in Bangkok with 8 cases detected
On Monday, the total number of cases in Thailand was 249,853 including 8 cases in Bangkok which have been confirmed as the Beta variant or the South African version against which the AstraZeneca vaccine is significantly less effective.
On Friday night, the Prime Minister explained that the Ministry of Labour was instituting measures to support the 575 construction sites which have been secured by armed forces and police including the establishment of food kitchens.
He also indicated that workers would be paid 50% of their salary from the government to stay in place.
PM has called for public co-operation but cannot rule out further measures trying to find a balance between protecting public health and the economy
The PM called on the public to cooperate with the government and to again voluntarily limit travel plans.
He gave an assurance that there would be no curfew imposed but could not say whether further restriction will follow.
‘People will have less convenience during this period,’ he warned. ‘We must consider measures carefully so as not to worsen the health situation or the economy, while also speeding up the pace of vaccinations.’
Further details of the operation were given by the Minister of Labour Suchart Chomklin who told reporters that the migrant workers had an incentive to stay within their camps as if they are caught leaving, they will not be paid by the government.
Labour minister says there will be a compact between construction site workers and officials based on pay
‘If they stay they get paid 50%. If they leave, they get no money,’ he revealed.
He said the government was in contact with all business owners and contractors linked with the building industry to explain the plan to control the camps linked with 35% of clusters in the Bangkok metropolis which also includes clusters in food processing factories and other commercial activities, linked with heavy manual labour, employing a migrant workforce.
There are also clusters in key areas of the city with over 120 being identified by the weekend as public officials scramble to control the outbreak.
A nationwide problem with emerging hotspots in Bangkok and the four southern most provinces
While the epicentre of this latest outbreak is in Bangkok, it accounts for not more than 25% of the daily tally with an emerging outbreak in southern Thailand which also of deep concern for the government as the South African B1351 variant has been detected and it is feared it may be growing more widespread although experts suggest that it is the Delta variant from India which will dominate the situation in Thailand before long.
It is being reported that the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health had come out against a full lockdown of Bangkok advising the government and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration to focus on shutting down ‘risky’ businesses and areas of activity which have been identified over the previous month.
Targeted lockdown measures in Bangkok for now
The limited lockdown, imposed on Bangkok on Saturday evening, includes a ban on dining facilities indoors, congregations of more than 20 people as well as parties and celebrations.
It also ordered the early closure of shopping malls.
There have been cordons set up in targeted districts and villages in the four southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla as well as similar lockdown provisions as ordered in Bangkok.
Details of the security operation to seal worker’s camps in Bangkok and other provinces given
Details of the lockdown and security operations which are in place at the 575 worker camps were given on Saturday by Deputy Minister of Defence Chaichan Changmongkol and the permanent secretary at the Ministry, Nat Intaracharoen.
A spokesman for the Defence Ministry, Lieutenant-General Koncheep Tantravanich confirmed that a security operation had swung into action for Saturday to secure the sites and that this would include testing of all workers and organised treatment for them if found to be suffering from the virus according to accepted protocols.
Plight of migrant workers in the kingdom now falls under the spotlight because of the emergency
The government’s actions over the weekend and rising concern about the fate of migrant workers in the capital and surrounding provinces who are also thought to be accompanied by at least 100,000 family members, has prompted activists to warn of the importance of treating the foreign workers with respect and dignity not only on the basis of human rights but also as the most effective way to combat the virus threat.
It is understood there are between 2 and 3 million migrant workers in Thailand, the vast majority of whom are from Myanmar followed by Cambodia and Laos.
Activist warns that many migrants suffer under an acute language barrier and more needs to be done
Adisorn Kerdmongkol works with the Migrant Working Group and says that the government must be mindful of the language barrier for migrant labourers and their inability to communicate and read Thai in efforts to make sure that they have access to medical treatment and vaccination.
Not all employers are as irresponsible as those who dropped their sick workers off at hospitals over the weekend with a segment of workers registered under Section 33 of the Social Security Act as employees.
However, all are very much dependent on their employers to manage access to health services on their behalf including paperwork demands.
Indeed, the pandemic has so disrupted business that it has been the main factor in driving a large number of migrant workers underground as their employers have wound down operations.
Pandemic is a boomtime for human trafficking
Security services have recently disclosed that human trafficking activity has spiked sharply because of the pandemic especially in cross border activity with Myanmar.
People trafficking kingpin nabbed with ฿14 million in his bank account which swelled during the pandemic
Mr Adisorn warned that the number of unregistered and illegal migrant workers could be anywhere from 1 million at a minimum up to 2 million.
Reports from migrant workers vary from employers who have managed and organised vaccines for them to some who have been sent to testing centres where the workers have been presented with bills to be paid by themselves for having Covid-19 tests conducted.
Calls for a blanket amnesty for all migrants at this time and immunity from law enforcement measures
The complex and dangerous situation on the ground right now with the migrant labour force has led Sompong Sakaew, of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), to call on the government to order what he terms a ‘reset’ for all migrant workers offering an immediate amnesty from prosecution or action by law enforcement agencies in respect of their immigration status.
Mr Sompong, personally believes that the number of illegal migrant workers to be about 1 million in Thailand and is convinced that each lockdown and measure taken by the government to control the spread of the virus is having the opposite or unintended effect as these workers are being forced to move and then do so without being detected by authorities out of fear of being incarcerated or prosecuted because of their illegal status.
Mr Sompong says officials don’t really care at all about migrant workers during this pandemic
While the government has made moves to allow illegal workers to register and become legal at this time with over 650,000 coming forward by the deadline earlier this year, Mr Sompong is calling for a simpler and more sweeping measure taking into account the limited and deprived circumstances of this population.
He points out that 90% are paid on a daily basis and must move on when work stops in order to survive.
He questions the good faith of the government towards these marginalised people at this time.
‘They are left to face it alone. This is what is happening but it is not seen. The government doesn’t care how the migrant workers struggle in the pandemic,’ he said.