Coronavirus: Myanmar, Thailand and Laos stay flexible as businesses reopen with conditions

Restaurant staff serve customers inside a dining area that has partitions installed in Bangkok on May 21, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Walk into a mall in Bangkok now and you will be asked to scan a QR code and key in personal details on a web platform for contact tracing. Enter a shop in the same mall and you will have to go through the same process again. Checking out requires yet another round of QR code scanning.

These rituals are now part of the new normal since Thailand, Myanmar and Laos lifted restrictions on key business activities over the past week to minimise the economic malaise trailing the coronavirus pandemic.

The newfound freedoms however are completely conditional.

Vientiane, which opened restaurants, cafes, beauty salons and spas this week, says new infections would lead to the province in question being locked down. If new cases are found in two or more provinces, a nationwide lockdown will once again come into force.

Thailand meanwhile plans to maintain its state of emergency until end June to keep its guard up against the lingering health threat.

Myanmar's health and sports ministry announced Tuesday (May 19) detailed rules under which restaurants can once again open for dine-in customers. Air-conditioned spaces must leave their windows open, menus must be hung or placed under the table, and partitions must be erected to separate diners.

What wasn't made clear was when eateries could actually reopen. Local officials in Yangon's Thingangyun township for instance had to order eager restaurateurs to shutter their restarted operations pending inspections of their premises.

"We asked them to close until we did checks," Thingangyun member of parliament Nay Phone Latt told The Straits Times. "The instructions were not so clear... It's not fair to fine them."

While on the guard against new cases of community transmission, officials are generally going easy on businesses struggling to cope with the drastic drop in incomes and trade.

Thailand's roll-out was more systematic, planned by a committee comprising experts across the fields of business, academia and medicine.

"The re-opening received much cooperation from the private sector because it was actually thought through by the private sector themselves," said Dr Kirida Bhaopichitr, director of economic intelligence service at the Thailand Development Research Institute, a think tank which was part of this committee.

A youth walks in a shopping mall in Yangon, Myanmar, on May 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

"They even had a survey on which businesses were ready, and which were not."

There were moments of anxiety. On Thursday, Thailand reported three new cases of Covid-19, among them a 72-year-old man who was suspected to have been infected from a trip to the barber.

Mr Taweesin Visanuyothin, spokesman for the government's Centre for the Covid-19 Situation Administration said contact tracing would have been far easier if the barber shop had registered to use Thai Chana (Thai Victory) - the web platform that collects customers' details.

Bangkok has chosen to encourage, rather than compel shops to use Thai Chana, conscious of the added responsibilities it places on small businesses.

It is early days yet as regional businesses get back onto their feet, but there are already thorny issues.

Privacy is one, given the massive amount of data being collected about people's movements throughout the day in Thailand. As of Tuesday, about five million people had logged their personal details on Thai Chana.

Thai officials insist the data that is collected will be deleted after 60 days and accessed only for disease control purposes.

But with no clear privacy policy, there are really no guarantees data will be secure or would not be used by the government to surveil adversaries, says Ms Sutawan Chanprasert, founder of DigitalReach, a group that examines technology's impact on human rights.

Thailand's personal data protection law, meant to be enacted this year, has been pushed back.

Meanwhile, policymakers are still debating what to do with enterprises where crowds are simply part of the business model, like nightclubs and cinemas.

Laos, Thailand and Myanmar have put these on the backburner. Even Vietnam, which has re-opened bars, has kept nightclubs firmly shut.

For now, policymakers remain watchful as they fire up all possible economic engines needed to put food on people's tables.

"No government intervention or cash handout would be enough to support everyone under a lockdown," said Dr Kirida.

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