BANGKOK - Anger is building at the administration of Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha for a slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which has left just 5% of Thais inoculated amid the deadliest wave of the coronavirus pandemic to hit the country, and as health officials warn the worst is yet to come.
Thailand reached a record caseload of 11,305 Tuesday, adding scores to the grim death toll — 3,408 since April — in a kingdom that had won praise for snuffing out the pandemic in earlier rounds.
The resurgence since April has revived the political challenge to Prayuth, who seized power in a 2014 coup, and who last year survived months of raucous pro-democracy protests, smothering the movement with legal charges and a heavy police response.
Even senior medical experts now concede the kingdom was caught flat-footed by the latest wave of infections and has overseen a sluggish vaccine rollout, with only an estimated 3.5 million of its 70 million population fully vaccinated so far.
“We ordered vaccines too slowly,” Prasit Watanpana, dean of faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital who also holds an unpaid board position with Siam Bioscience — a company owned by Thailand’s powerful monarch that holds the local license to make the AstraZeneca vaccine — said Sunday in a Clubhouse chatroom.
“We thought we had everything under control.”
Back to the streets
As the surging virus threatens a government pledge to reopen the kingdom to key tourists by October, protesters are back on Bangkok’s streets.
More than 1,000 people on Sunday defied a near-complete lockdown of the capital and an emergency order banning gatherings of five or more people to demand the government resign.
Protesters burning effigies of Prayuth near Government House were met by tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets fired by riot police.
The demonstrators say the fumbled vaccine rollout is the ultimate example of Prayuth’s anemic administration of the country.
They also want the government to shift money from its defense budget and to buy mRNA vaccines to replace the Chinese-made Sinovac — which is widely seen as inferior inside Thailand.
“COVID has exposed the Thai governing system: hierarchy, nepotism, patronage,” Attapon Buapat, a pro-democracy protest leader told VOA news.
Thailand’s richest conglomerate, which operates convenience stores, is among one of Sinovac’s shareholders, via a stake in another company, adding to widespread mistrust of the brand.
Meanwhile, local production of Astra-Zeneca has been inexplicably delayed despite its royal backing, threatening agreements to distribute the vaccine across Southeast Asia.
“It’s been exhausting fighting with the government this past year... but it’s worth it, because people are starting to wake up now,” protest leader Attapon said of a growing consensus among citizens historically divided along pro and anti-establishment lines.
'Work for your people'
Analysts say the resurgent caseloads have moved older conservatives to find rare common cause with the pro-democracy camp.
“While the young protesters did not broaden their reform movement to include older demographics, the pandemic is doing it for them,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at the Institute of Security and International Studies Faculty of Political Science Chulalongkorn University.
“The Prayuth government's pandemic mismanagement is broadening the kinds of grievances we saw last year. It is building up into a political maelstrom.”
The vaccine fiasco has created a torrent across Thai social media, reaching millions of people trapped at home, many unable to register for an inoculation because of shortages and government websites and apps crashing under the burden of massive public demand.
Health authorities said Tuesday the government has signed a belated deal with Pfizer to procure 20 million doses by the end of this year—and double that amount in 2022.
“I assure you that the government has never sat around when it comes to procuring the vaccines,” embattled Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on his official Facebook page after the Pfizer deal was penned.
“Rest assured that it’s our policy to procure vaccines of good quality by our set timeline.”
But government blame is mounting with each passing day, as Thais increasingly feel they are fighting the pandemic alone.
"I am lucky to be standing here while many of my countrymen cannot travel,” Thai filmmaker Apichartpong Weerasethakul said in his acceptance speech in Cannes, where he won the Jury Prize for Memoria.
“Many of them suffer greatly from the pandemic with the mismanagement of resources, health care, and vaccine accessibility,” he said, urging the Thai government to “please wake up, and work for your people — now.”