New Year celebrations hang in the balance as Thailand races to contain outbreak among migrant workers

Migrant workers queuing for a Covid-19 nasal swab test in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, on Dec 20, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - New Year celebrations that Thailand has been banking on to lift consumer spending are hanging in the balance as the country mulled on Monday (Dec 21) whether to widen containment measures amid its biggest Covid-19 outbreak in months.

The latest cluster, emanating from a shrimp market in the seafood processing hub of Samut Sakhon province, has hitherto affected more than 800 migrant workers and the government expects its mass testing to surface more infected cases.

Travel restrictions and a 10pm-to-5am curfew are in place in Samut Sakhon, where schools and dine-in facilities have been suspended. Meanwhile, a handful of new infections linked to this cluster have been found in Bangkok and nearby provinces such as Samut Prakan and Nakhon Pathom.

While the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has cancelled its new year events, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Monday did not commit to a larger ban, saying the government would need to evaluate the situation during the week.

"Let's see what happens in the next seven days, to see what we will do for the New Year," he said. "Don't panic."

On Saturday (Dec 19), Thailand reported more than 550 new cases, its single biggest daily increase. Most are asymptomatic Myanmar migrant workers, who form the bulk of labourers in its seafood industry. On Monday (Dec 21), Thailand added 382 to the tally, bringing its total number of cases to 5,289, with 60 deaths.

Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin, spokesman of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, said on Monday: "You as business operators or those who are holding events should consider numbers that we are reporting to assess the risk."

Investors, however, reacted early to the bad news, causing the SET Index to shed 5.4 per cent of its value on Monday.

Asean's second-biggest economy was erstwhile looking to usher in a new year with major celebrations despite recent new cases in northern Thailand caused by people crossing the porous Thai-Myanmar border without undergoing quarantine.

Neighbouring Myanmar is still struggling to contain its outbreak. It has logged more than 116,000 cases and over 2,400 deaths .

Thailand's economy, meanwhile, was forecast by the National Economic and Social Development Council to contract by a smaller-than-expected 6 per cent in 2020, despite the dearth of foreign tourists.

Central Group, one of Thailand's biggest conglomerates, was due to hold a concert on New Year's Eve in central Bangkok, featuring popular groups like BNK48. It is unclear if this will go ahead.

BMA spokesman Pongsakorn Kwanmuang urged all parties to cancel new year events, saying anyone who planned to stage one for more than 300 people would need to show good enough pandemic safety measures to obtain its permission to go ahead.

Dr Taweesilp appealed for patience as it may take weeks to clear this outbreak as it tests more than 10,000 people at risk.

"A 100-bed field hospital has been set up for any of them found to be infected, so that they can be treated without having to leave the area. Some of them who may not be infected are also considered high risk because they live together in close quarters," he said.

"So (we would) rather have them stay together in the same area than allow some to move out. This is the model that Singapore has used," he added.

Mr Chairat Trirattanajarasporn, immediate past president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, told The Straits Times: "Some private and upcountry countdowns can probably continue, but not on a large scale."

The news would probably put people off joining major celebrations anyway, he said.

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