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Thai Health Official: No Mandatory Coronavirus Quarantine for High-Risk Country Arrivals

A health worker checks tourists' temperatures as they arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport, in Bangkok, Thailand, March 4, 2020.

An official at Thailand's Health Ministry on Friday denied news reports that the government had ordered the compulsory quarantine of all arrivals from the four countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus whether or not they were infected or showing symptoms, after days of mixed messages.

The government labeled China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — along with Hong Kong and Macau — "dangerous communicable disease areas" on Thursday. The same day, Reuters news agency reported that all arrivals from those areas would have to quarantine themselves for 14 days, either at home or in their hotels, citing Health Ministry spokesman Rungrueng Kitphati.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul had announced the compulsory quarantine for arrivals from the countries and territories on Facebook on Tuesday — along with France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan — but deleted his post soon after and closed the account the next day. He told local media that the list needed revising.

On Friday afternoon, Tanarak Pipat, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry's disease control department, told VOA that there was no mandatory quarantine order for arrivals from any country for the time being.

"No, not yet," he said. "We did not quarantine the travelers."

Asked whether the government might yet impose a compulsory quarantine on arrivals from any country, Tanarak replied, "maybe, just maybe."

The AFP news agency reported that the government was "recommending" that arrivals from the four countries self-quarantine, however, and insisted that they report to authorities on their health status daily.

People line up to buy face masks amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, outside a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, March 5, 2020.
People line up to buy face masks amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, outside a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, March 5, 2020.

Thailand has also been moving ahead tentatively with "social distancing" efforts to cut down on large crowds through which the virus might spread. Authorities have postponed one of the country's largest sporting events, the MotoGP 2020, scheduled for later this month over outbreak fears and suspended the full-moon parties on Koh Phangan, which draw thousands of revelers a month, until further notice.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to report an infection of Covid-19, as the new virus is officially known. But the country has since kept new cases in check. It reported its 48th confirmed case on Friday, a British man who arrived via Hong Kong. Of the 48 patients, 31 have recovered and one has died.

The concern the World Health Organization (WHO) has with any possible blanket policy of compulsory quarantine is its risk or looking like and in effect acting as an international travel ban, which it advises against.

"Our formal line on this is that it's not really recommended," Dr. Rick Brown, health and emergency program manager for the WHO in Thailand, told VOA.

"Until now there's really been insufficient evidence to really inform a very, very considered scientific debate about it. But on the basis of the evidence that's available so far, it seems like travel restrictions don't necessarily work. And they do also have these collateral disadvantages."

He said travel restrictions imposed during the Ebola virus outbreak that hit parts of Africa some years ago hurt efforts to fight the disease by making it harder for health professionals and medical supplies to reach the affected area.

"So I think it's a combination of: Is there very good evidence that the measures that are actually going to be effective in slowing the spread of the disease balanced against all the kind of collateral, negative impacts that a restriction on travel will have?" he said.

Brown said he was impressed with the Thai government's response to the Covid-19 crisis to date, praising its laboratories, coordination between agencies, emergency operations centers and case follow-up.

Despite those efforts, the crisis has taken a heavy toll on Thailand's already flagging economy, which draws heavily on tourist dollars. The tourism authority says the outbreak could cost the country 15% of the roughly 40 million foreign arrivals the country sees each year. Forecasters expect GDP growth in 2020 to dip below 2% owing partly to the virus.