Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Thai prime minister has called on the country’s corporate titans to come up with projects that will benefit the wider community.
Over the course of the past week, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his government have made headway in the effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of new infections diagnosed daily in Thailand has fallen significantly, to the low double digits. The Thai public has, for its part, recognised the importance of social distancing and social responsibility. Wearing masks has become an indispensable part of daily life. While Thailand’s efforts have won considerable international praise, Thai authorities have cautioned that the real battle against the coronavirus has only just begun.
In addition to fighting the disease itself, the prime minister has shown increasing concern about the severity of the impact of the virus on the economy and on the livelihood of the people. As in many countries, in Thailand it is no longer just a matter of fear of the deadly disease but also of the deprivation gripping much of the population.
Prime Minister Prayut sounded a battle cry when he took the decision to write an open letter to the 20 wealthiest people in the country to seek their active support as part of “Team Thailand” in dealing with the economic repercussions of the pandemic. On 17 April, he announced the initiative in a televised nation-wide address. He expressed his determination to reach out to all stakeholders in the society, and called on them to unite as Team Thailand in waging the fight ahead regardless of political affiliations.
Opposition parties and political opponents of the government have seized on the opportunity to criticise the prime minister’s open letter. They charge that it demonstrates that the government is at its wit’s end and has no choice other than to seek financial help from the ultra-rich in Thai society. In their view, this turn of events only serves to confirm the cosy relationship between big businesses and the government. In the opposite camp, supporters of the government have welcomed the prime minister’s decision to mobilise the efforts of the private sector and other stakeholders. Prayut himself has made it clear that the government is not seeking financial contributions, but rather asking prominent members of the business community to come up with innovative ideas and undertake concrete projects that would yield direct benefits to the people.
Prime Minister Prayut is being upfront in saying that the efforts of the government are simply not enough; it will take not just a whole-of-government but instead a whole-of-society approach to overcome the crisis.
While the politics play out, there is growing fear that the worst economic fallout from the pandemic is yet to come. The Thai economy was already heading towards a significant downturn before the outbreak of Covid-19. It is now predicted that Thailand will be hardest hit economically among all the ASEAN countries. Economic growth could contract at least 7 per cent this year. This is due to the country’s heavy dependence on exports and tourism, which together account for over 80 per cent of its GDP. To compound matters, the toll on ordinary Thais will be historic. It is estimated that between 7 and 10 million Thais will face unemployment, depending on how long the crisis lasts. This stark reality was brought home when more than 23 million people registered online in just a week for monthly cash handouts of 5,000 baht (about US$150).
At this, Prime Minister Prayut is being upfront in saying that the efforts of the government are simply not enough; it will take not just a whole-of-government but instead a whole-of-society approach to overcome the crisis.
During the initial period of the coronavirus outbreak in Thailand, the government machinery was bogged down by a lack of teamwork and coordination across different ministries. This was in part because ministers belonged to different parties in the coalition government. But, following the imposition of the emergency decree on 24 March, the prime minister consolidated much of the authority for crisis management directly under his authority. Government House became the command centre, and directives went straight to senior bureaucrats in various ministries. Ministers and politicians faded into the background. This approach has enabled the government to better stay on top of the situation in stemming the spread of the pandemic.
But the government will surely have to muster even greater resolve and capacity in the coming days. As economic pain becomes more intense, the challenge will be to ensure vigilance in keeping the pandemic under control while considering when and how to begin rolling back the shutdown and revive the economy. The government has already rolled out a massive economic relief and stimulus package of more than US$58 billion. Still, it will take some time before the effect of the measures work their way into the economy.
In the meantime, while Thailand’s parliament is set to resume its session at the end of May, opposition parties are already moving to convene a special session to debate the current crisis and the government’s response to it. As pressures mount on the economic and political fronts, Prime Minister Prayut will need, more than ever, to rally all the resources and forces behind his Team Thailand for the long battle ahead.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow is former Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.