What appears to be a growing cluster of Covid-19 cases only literal days before the Songkran holidays in Thailand is a nightmare scenario for Thai health officials and a “rock and a hard place” decision for government policymakers.
The Bangkok government has already closed nightlife venues in three major districts as of 9:00 P.M. last night as a precautionary measure for two weeks and plans to meet today to discuss further measures, including a potential closure time of 9:00 P.M. for entertainment venues and restaurants as well as alcohol restrictions.
Meanwhile, the current clusters come only days before Songkran, which is also known as the Thai new year or water festival for those not familiar and is the biggest holiday of the year for Thai people, essentially their Christmas and New Years rolled into one. The official legal holiday dates are April 10th, this Saturday, to April 16th next week.
The Thai government has already banned “fun” activities for Songkran this year, like water fights, concerts, parties, non-religious parades, crowded festivals, etc. However, despite this ban, there are concerns still around Songkran, primarily the fact that it is the single biggest domestic travel period of the year for Thai people and the fact that millions of Thais normally leave Bangkok and other bigger cities to go home and see their families and friends in rural provinces. As of press time, there are no national travel restrictions, although provincial governors could set their own if they wished.
Medical experts in Thailand and prominent doctors, in particular, are concerned, urging people to consider staying home or avoiding a trip to see possibly vulnerable elderly relatives for the second year in a row.
It’s a nightmare scenario for the Thai government and Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to manage and any decision they make will likely have huge backlash. Economic experts have already predicted the worst Songkran financially in almost a decade due to the bans on “fun” activities that traditionally make the most revenue. This doesn’t count last year when Songkran was postponed to later in the year.
The Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan O’Cha, is also urging people to limit their activities and consider not drinking alcohol over the holiday period next week.
Authorities monitoring the Covid-19 situation may have some very difficult decisions to make over the next few days, none of them easy. Many comments online suggest simply “canceling” Songkran, but it isn’t that easy, as most suggesting this don’t truly understand the holiday beyond the party aspect. As mentioned, it’s the longest holiday period, and arguably the most important, of the year and is the same basic concept of “canceling” Christmas in Western countries. The partying aspect of Songkran is really a minor aspect of the holiday in the scheme of things, the main part of the holiday for most people (like Christmas) is for families, friends, and others to get together and spend time with each other after many have been busy working in the larger cities for the past year.
The mental health and morale-related issues of “canceling” or postponing the holiday only four days before it is set to begin would be a significant blow to many people who have been waiting for this holiday for weeks or months to spend time with their loved ones. This doesn’t even take into effect the economic issues for a country that has had foreign tourism essentially shut down for a year and has been pushing to reboot domestic tourism. Many places in Pattaya, Hua Hin, Phuket, and other popular tourist destinations are fully booked for the holiday next week. Local hotel organizations in Pattaya report nearly one hundred percent room bookings at most major hotels for next week, any decisions to “postpone” or cancel Songkran would be not only financially devastating for business but also for people who have made plans for weeks or months.
It is also worth noting that this same scenario took place back in December of last year right before New Year’s when the government pulled the plug on events and shut down entertainment venues, in some cases one day before New Year’s Eve, which had huge mental health and economic damage and resulted in weeks of closures in many provinces. Doing this again would cause untold further damage.
It’s worth noting for those pushing to “cancel” Songkran, that this was only done last year through draconian travel bans including the shut down of buses, trains, and domestic flights. Last year, the country had a curfew, there was substantial fear around Covid-19 (which has declined significantly, especially around the young who are generally not affected heavily, especially in Thailand where the vast majority of cases have been mild and asymptomatic), there were checkpoints and provincial quarantines everywhere, there was basically a nationwide alcohol sales ban (which was very unpopular), and every business except essential ones were closed. These drastic measures are almost certain not to be taken due to the economic cost and the fact the Thai government either does not or will not provide “furlough” or financial assistance to the millions that would be affected by these closures and decisions like Western countries.
Therefore, it is likely most people would simply still celebrate the holiday with friends and family in some way. Indeed, there are already unconfirmed reports on social media from Bangkok especially of people “fleeing” the capital and restrictions in advance of any potential further measures.
Another option is to postpone the event, perhaps in a true manner, unlike last year when the Songkran days were just tacked on to weekends in the fall to encourage domestic tourism. If the Thai government truly pushed it back to the fall when, hopefully, foreign tourists start to return under proposals currently being mulled, it could be a joyous event and a big moneymaker, especially if they allowed concerts and water fights, even though it would be at an awkward time. By this point, say October or November, vaccines should be much further along in Thailand.
The most likely option at this point, as difficult as it is, would be allowing traditional activities like giving religious merit to continue while potentially canceling the tradition of sprinkling water on the hands of the elderly and monks. The Thai government has already shown signs of using the million-strong health volunteers in rural provinces to help question and Covid-test people returning to rural areas who have recently been in high-risk places or locations. This helped last year as well when hundreds of thousands fled Pattaya, Bangkok, and Phuket to return home but despite widespread predictions of doom and gloom, that never happened, primarily due to the work of health volunteers.
It’s a nearly impossible decision for policymakers to make. They have a brilliant test and trace system, we have seen it in action, and it seems to have been working so far. Their fear, however, is that the clusters grow past the point where it makes testing and tracing difficult. For now, we wait for the CCSA to make further decisions, possibly as early as today.