BANGKOK - Thailand is poised to hit a milestone this weekend in its national vaccination drive, with the 100 millionth jab administered, bringing the number of those fully vaccinated in the country to 60 per cent of the population.
But with about 10 million people yet to get their first doses and the emergence of the new, possibly more transmissable Omicron variant, the authorities are stepping up efforts to dispel vaccine hesitancy and fake news in regions of concern, such as the Muslim-majority deep south which has been racked by a long-running separatist insurgency for years.
Border provinces such as Songkla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have come under close watch after the region overtook Greater Bangkok as the new epicentre of the coronavirus in October.
Vaccines supplies and healthcare personnel have since been channelled to the region, and a new temporary task force has been set up to tackle infection hot spots.
While the authorities say Covid-19 infections have stabilised, the southern provinces continue to top the list of regions with the highest daily case numbers, owing to lingering vaccine hesitancy and the prevalence of fake news.
"In June, we were all waiting for the vaccines to get to us, but now, the vaccines are waiting for takers," long-time Pattani Senator Anusart Suwanmongkol told The Straits Times. "We have all the vaccines you could ever want, whether it's Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca."
He added: "There's still a good 40 to 50 per cent who are not willing to get vaccinated." He noted that the region did have a history of vaccine hesitancy towards other preventive shots such as against measles or tetanus.
Fake news and inaccurate information circulating on social media about the vaccines have been a big obstacle, said Mr Anusart, who has had to dispel myths and half-truths in the community, such as perceptions that there was no use in getting vaccinated as it did not prevent Covid-19 infection.
"We usually spread it by word of mouth, telling them that you might get Covid-19, but vaccines reduce the severity of illness and likelihood of death," he said.
Religious leaders are a huge driving force in encouraging people to get vaccinated, but more needs to be done, said Mr Anusart.
"It seems like everyone who wants to get vaccinated has already gotten their shots. We need more incentives to entice people to get vaccinated," he said, pointing out that some provinces have offered free rice and gifts to entice those sitting on the fence.
Dr Saran Thanapluetiwong from the Ramathibodi Hospital's division of geriatric medicine, said the fully vaccinated rate in the four provinces at more than 40 per cent to 60 per cent in each was better than in some other regions like the north-east.
While there have not been significant instances of extreme anti-vaccination behaviour in Thailand, Dr Saran, who led one of the first local studies on vaccine hesitancy earlier this year, believed the initial fumbled national vaccination drive could have led to hesitancy among its citizens.
The beginning of the national campaign saw a lack of vaccines, which were limited to the Chinese-made Sinovac and Oxford University's AstraZeneca, manufactured under licence locally.
This, coupled with the Thai government's decision to mix and match vaccines - the first of such initiatives in the world - could have triggered unnecessary alarm.
"Nobody wants to be a lab test subject, and there were many questions about mixing vaccine doses then," he said.
The situation has since changed, and Thailand expects to receive ample vaccine supplies in the coming months, with 30 million doses of Pfizer due this year and 60 million AstraZeneca ones slated for next year.
The number of daily Covid-19 cases and deaths across Thailand has also been on the general decline, with infections dipping below 5,000 in the past week.
The authorities have hinted at possible differentiated curbs for the unvaccinated in public spaces, to encourage more to get their jabs, local media reported.
Dr Saran believes such measures will not receive much pushback in cities such as Bangkok, with high vaccination rates, but Pattani's Mr Anusart is sceptical of their effectiveness in the south.
"It could be the region's status as a conflict zone, but I think we are more sensitive to negative incentives. These might trigger unforeseen effects. You have to be sensitive," said Mr Anusart.