Coronavirus pandemic

Infections in Thailand surge to almost 600, as fears grow in S-E Asia

People in face masks walk through an unusually empty Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, on March 21, 2020.
People in face masks walk through an unusually empty Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, on March 21, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK • Thailand's confirmed coronavirus cases rose by a third to nearly 600, the kingdom announced yesterday, as fears of a full-blown crisis take hold in a country largely spared until now.

The spike in Thailand has fuelled scepticism about claims in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos of zero infections as fears grow for their weak healthcare systems and fragile economies.

Meanwhile, Vietnam last Saturday imposed a blanket ban on all foreigners entering the country, even though the number of confirmed cases still hovers below 100.

The Philippines reported 73 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 380, the Health Ministry said yesterday. It also announced six more deaths related to the virus, bringing total fatalities to 25.

Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire told DZBB radio that the increase in the number of confirmed cases could be "artificial" as the government is only now catching up on a backlog of tests.

The main island of Luzon is about a week into a month-long lockdown, with businessmen calling for a 281 billion peso (S$8 billion) fiscal stimulus to soften the economic blow of the spreading coronavirus outbreak that has displaced millions of workers.

More than 700 factories and 400 economic zones have been shut, while doctors are warning of a possible collapse in the healthcare system as infections rise.

A "massive stimulus" and "forceful action" are needed to counter the effects of the pandemic, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries and 31 other business groups said in a statement.

The Philippine lockdown is "literally a matter of life and death" for millions of workers and their families that "may trigger violence and longer-term social tensions", they said.

In Thailand, its Health Ministry announced that the spike was mainly in the capital, but warned residents of Bangkok not to leave and risk spreading the virus around the country.

"We would like you to stay home. Do not travel upcountry," said Health Ministry official Taweesin Visanuyothin.

 
 

South-east Asia has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic that has swept the world, confining nearly one billion to their homes and killing more than 13,600.

But that could be about to change. With a boxing stadium and night club among the likely transmission sites, Bangkok has now imposed tough restrictions.

Virtually all public spaces have been shuttered, from shopping malls and beauty parlours to golf courses and swimming pools.

Residents packed supermarkets over the weekend to stockpile food, fearing a full lockdown.

Transport links are also slowly being severed.

A frontier crossing point near the northern city of Chiang Rai saw thousands of Thai and Myanmar citizens rushing to get home before land border closures came into effect.

 
 

Bangkok Airways and Thai AirAsia have cancelled all international flights while Thai Lion Air has grounded its fleet entirely.

Yet elsewhere in the tropical tourist destination, life continued unabated with beaches in Pattaya and Phuket thronged with sun-seekers.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2020, with the headline 'Infections in Thailand surge to almost 600, as fears grow in S-E Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe