Thailand’s class divisions have dramatically widened during the Covid-19 pandemic. With students returning to the streets in protest, even with tight crowd restrictions in place, after a three-month hiatus during the pandemic, the Prayuth Chan-ocha regime is faltering in public support and perceived competence to handle a dramatic linear increase in case numbers.
Thailand, last year near the top of the list of countries which have handled the pandemic well, now finds itself third last, ranked 118 out of 120 in the Nikkei Asia Covid-19 recovery index. Thailand’s prime minister Prayuth publicly took over personal control of managing the country’s response to the pandemic last April. Since then, the country has been hit with more contagious variants of the virus, and been slow and haphazard in rolling out the vaccine program across the country.
The government has put its eggs into Siam Bioscience's production of AstraZeneca, which is both late and providing far fewer doses than expected, and importing the less effective Sinovac Vaccine from China. Given the royal backing, the regime had little choice in supporting AstraZeneca as the primary vaccine. Hong Kong Sino Biopharmaceutical is part of the CP pharmaceutical group, where CP has a USD 515 million investment and 16 percent stake, a major supporter of the Prayuth regime.
The AZ option explains why Thailand was the only country which refused to join the World Health Organization's COVAX scheme, and also why Prayuth and his government passed up options in 2020 to buy mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna that Thais are now clamoring for. In addition, US pharmaceutical companies are said to have walked away from Thailand rather than contravene the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This has led to a massive shortfall in acquiring enough vaccines to inoculate the nation. Now the government is attempting to mix the Sinovac and AZ vaccines to improve efficacy, contrary to WHO advice.
Nevertheless, Prayuth is on public record pledging the country will return to normality within 120 days, hence the rollout of the “sandbox” tourism reopening, amid rising Covid case numbers and deaths. The politics behind the acquisition of vaccines indicates how very little ordinary Thai people's lives mean to those leading this quasi-military government.
Only 4.5 percent of the population has been vaccinated, where there is criticism that those well-connected elite, who are seen responsible for this outbreak by frequenting entertainment complexes and brothels, used connections to get vaccinated before the needy, vulnerable, and frontline medical workersacross the country.
With the prime minister and his entourage seen not obeying rules to wear masks at all times during the opening of the Phuket “sandbox”, on July 1, a scheme to bring back foreign tourists to Thailand, the covid pandemic has become the symbol of a great class divide.
Covid-19 restrictions in place over the last 18 months have gravely weakened the economy. Thailand’s GDP contracted 6.1 percent in 2020, and GDP per-capita declined USD 600 from 2019 to 2020, according to World Bank data. The Bank of Thailand estimatesthat GDP growth in 2021, have been downgraded to 1.8 percent. However, this estimate was made before the cabinet reintroduced restrictions in response to the dramatic rise in Covid cases, now around the 10,000 per day level, at the time of writing.
Thailand’s official unemployment rose to 1.96 percent, 760,000 people, in the first quarter of 2021. However, there are a further two million people unemployed in the informal sector, due to economic downturn and the collapse of both foreign and now domestic tourism across the country.
Poverty in Thailand is on the rise again, rising from 7.2 percent in 2016 to 8.8 percent in 2020. While aggregate household consumption grew, household consumption of the bottom 40 percent has shrunk.
At the same time, 38 of 50 of Thailand’s most wealthy families have increased their net worth. According to Forbes 50 Richest list, the Chearavanont brothers, of the Charoen Pokphand Group (CP), increased their wealth by USD 2.8 billion, to USD 30.2 billion over the last 15 months. Chareon Sirivadhanabhakdi of the Thai Beverage Group increased his wealth from USD 10.5 to USD 12.7 billion. The Chirathivat family, controlling the Central Group, increased their wealth from USD 11.6 billion, from USD 9.5 billion. Sarath Ratanavadi, of Gulf Energy Group and Advanced Info Services (AIS), increased his wealth to USD 8.9 billion. Thailand’s healthcare tycoons all increased their wealth substantially. The Sincharoenkul family, behind the Sri Trang group, which manufactures rubber gloves, made the list for the first time. Bancha Ongkosit, whose KCE Electronics manufacturers printed circuit boards for the automotive sector, came onto the list, with the upswing in demand for electric vehicles.
However, some families’ wealth dropped over the last year. Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, owner of King Power, which suffered a downturn from the travel freeze last year, was still ranked 16th with USD 2.15 billion. Somporn Juangroongruangkit, mother of banned politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, still managed 47th position with USD 815 million.