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Thailand To Reopen After Recording No New Coronavirus Cases In Nearly A Month


Thailand has gone a month without a confirmed COVID-19 case domestically and is now set to fully reopen, though foreign tourists may still have to wait. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thailand was the first country in the world outside of China to record a coronavirus case back in January. But to date, Thailand has reported fewer than 3,200 cases overall with just 58 deaths. How?

JOHN MACARTHUR: They were quick on the draw and went into action quickly.

SULLIVAN: John MacArthur is the Thailand country director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

MACARTHUR: And so when, in December 2019, we started to hear reports of a pneumonia of unknown etiology coming out of Wuhan, China, the Thais took notice of that.

SULLIVAN: Aggressively. By the first week in January, they were up and running.

MACARTHUR: They activated their emergency operations center. They put quarantine officers on high alert within the international airports and started to do fever screening of tourists, particularly those tourists who were coming in from the Wuhan area.

SULLIVAN: Experience with the SARS and bird flu epidemics in the mid- to late 2000s and a robust public health network with good epidemiologists and a strong lab network helped the Thais respond quickly, he says. So did the public's early buy-in on masks and social distancing. And then there's contact tracing, something the U.S. and Britain are struggling with even today. The Thais were on it from the outset.

RICK BROWN: This is not particularly glamorous work, and I think these are really some of the unsung heroes of the response so far.

SULLIVAN: Rick Brown is with the World Health Organization office in Bangkok. He says more than a thousand rapid response teams plus an extensive network of village health volunteers a million strong helped ferret out the transmission chain of infected individuals.

BROWN: If they manage to identify even 80 or 90% of all the close contacts, this really reduces significantly the possibility of any onward transmission. And I think this is really the thing that's almost unique about Thailand - that they have these networks so that they can deal with an event like this when it occurs.

SULLIVAN: The result - here's Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Natapanu Nopakun of the COVID task force briefing reporters on Monday.


NATAPANU NOPAKUN: Today we have zero cases domestically for the 28th day. That's a very good and positive sign, and we thank, of course, everyone for their cooperation.

SULLIVAN: And it means almost all businesses shuttered by the lockdown are now open. But manufacturing is now only starting to rebound, and the virus has gutted the country's tourism industry, which accounts for as much as 20% of the country's GDP. Government handouts of $150 a month have reached millions, but many others in the informal sector or migrant workers from neighboring countries have gone without. And many jobs, especially in tourism, may not be coming back.

TANES PETSUWAN: Nothing will be the same, Michael. Nothing will be the same about the tourism industry not only for Thailand. I'm talking about the tourism industry of the world.

SULLIVAN: An industry, says Tanes Petsuwan of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, that should expect far fewer tourists worldwide this year and next. Thailand is in no hurry to reopen its borders, and neither are its people. A poll this month showed a majority don't want foreign tourists now, fearing they'll bring COVID with them. And the Thai government isn't letting its guard down, knowing a second wave could still be out there.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANSIONAIR SONG, "HOLD ME DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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