Thailand Wrestles With Omicron Variant Amid Holiday Spikes

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Thailand Wrestles With Omicron Variant Amid Holiday Spikes

Health authorities have recommended that the suspension of a quarantine-free travel scheme be extended until January 31.

Thailand Wrestles With Omicron Variant Amid Holiday Spikes

The popular floating market in Damnoen Saduak, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand.

Credit: Depositphotos

Cases of the Omicron variant spiked upwards in Thailand over the new year holiday period, likely delaying further efforts to restart the country’s economically vital tourism industry after 18 months of border closures.

Health authorities reported yesterday that the total number of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant had leapt to 2,062, up from 740 cases before the holidays and just 63 on December 2o, when Thailand detected its first locally transmitted case of the fast-spreading variant.

As a result of the spike, the Ministry of Public Health has recommended that the government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), which is the final arbiter of pandemic-related policies, extend the suspension of the “Test & Go” quarantine waiver for foreign visitors.

“In the interests of health and safety, we have decided to delay the Test & Go scheme further. We will present the proposal for approval by the CCSA,” Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said, according to the Bangkok Post. The CCSA will meet this Friday to make a final decision on the waiver.

At the start of November, Thailand reopened to fully vaccinated travelers from more than 60 countries, just in time for the detection of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in South Africa. Under this so-called Test & Go scheme, vaccinated travelers from more than 60 countries were required to isolate for a night until they returned a negative COVID-19 test, after which they could travel freely around the country.

But on December 21, a day after the first case of community transmission, the Thai  government suspended the scheme and reinstated its quarantine requirement for foreign visitors until January 4.

Facing a potential new wave of COVID-19 cases of all variants – the country detected more than 3,000 new infections yesterday – Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government has introduced new measures to limit the spread of the disease in schools and other educational institutions. Health authorities have called on  people to get booster vaccinations in order to consolidate the country’s rapid rollout of vaccines. Thailand has now fully vaccinated 64.1 percent of its population, but just under 10 percent have received a third booster shot.

As I noted when the quarantine-free scheme was first suspended last month, the arrival of Omicron has deepened the gloom that continues to hang over Thailand’s tourism industry, as well as the economy as a whole.

Despite Thailand’s mostly successful containment of COVID-19 in 2020, the economy contracted by 6.1 percent for the year, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But fresh waves of the virus last year, which contributed the bulk of Thailand’s 2.2 million infections and 21,750 COVID-19-related deaths, have since eroded expectations for the country’s economic recovery. In September, the ADB downgraded the projected growth for 2021 from 3 percent down to just 0.8 percent, and then amended this upwards to 1 percent in its December outlook.

The ADB is projecting a more optimistic 4 percent growth in 2022, but given the resilience of COVID-19 and the sorry lack of international coordination aimed at defeating the disease, there is every reason to believe that this figure will fall as the third year of the pandemic progresses.