Monday, February 3, 2020

BANGKOK — China isn’t the only country facing political fallout over its handling of the raging coronavirus health crisis.

Thailand’s military-backed government is the target of mounting public unease and skepticism for its mixed response to Wuhan’s deadly coronavirus. The nation’s capital has the largest number of infected people outside China.

In Bangkok’s streets and on social media, Thais and expatriates have expressed panic over the spread of the virus while targeting Chinese with racist remarks and demanding that all flights from China to Thailand be canceled immediately.

As of Monday, 19 people in Bangkok had confirmed virus infections, the Health Ministry said.

Eighteen of them, including a Thai woman, arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan, the city in China believed to be the source of the outbreak of the mysterious airborne disease.

A Thai taxi driver was also quarantined after transporting an infected Chinese tourist to a hospital in Bangkok. They became the first confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus in Thailand.

No coronavirus deaths were reported in Thailand, and some of those quarantined recovered and were released.

A Twitter hashtag #crapgovernment was trending in Thailand last week, with thousands of people tweeting complaints about Bangkok’s uncoordinated response to the outbreak.

“I am very worried,” said Paul Risley, an American consultant to the United Nations who has lived in Bangkok for 19 years.

“My children are 9 and 6,” he said. “They attend an international school with perhaps 10% Chinese national students. Starting this week, the school has instituted temperature takings of all students in mornings, requested some students to go to a hospital for a medical note, and gave a questionnaire to parents asking if they had been in mainland China recently and where.

“This is a big learning experience, especially for my 6-year-old, about the importance of washing hands all day long. He and his best friend call it the ‘Verona Virus.’ And today his friend was home, sick with just a cold. His friend’s mother and I laugh, nervously, and hope this is only a cold,” Mr. Risley said.

The world’s biggest Chinatown is in Bangkok. The 200-year-old neighborhood was packed in recent days with Chinese, local Thais, foreign nationals and international tourists visiting outdoor restaurants, food markets, temples and shops.

At the Grand Palace on Thursday, staff used hand-held digital thermometers to scan the foreheads of more than a dozen white-uniformed royal guards before they ceremoniously escorted Princess Sirindhorn to a banquet.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was invited to the banquet but did not attend because he had a slight fever and took the day off.

Social media sprang into action again: A Twitter hashtag #PrayforPrayuth quickly went viral with tens of thousands of tweets about the ailing prime minister mixing support, harsh satire and graphic death wishes.

As in China, a run on face masks and hand sanitizer products had many stores sold out.

The sense of unease was heightened when the Thai navy announced last week that 20 officers stationed in Wuhan to oversee construction of the country’s first submarine were allowed to return home at the start of the Lunar New Year celebrations after Chinese officials quarantined the city. But more than 130 Thais trapped in Wuhan’s urban lockdown will be flown only to Bangkok on Tuesday and quarantined, Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said.

Initial reports from Wuhan indicated that the coronavirus may have been transmitted through snake meat to humans in a “wet market,” which sells edible live animals and carcasses, including wildlife.

Bangkok and other Thai cities have similar roofed, open-air markets. Fish is often laid on blocks of ice near caged poultry while butchers chop meat on cement floors wet with blood and slivers of discarded animal flesh.

Unlike China, creatures such as bats, snakes and dogs are not usually available to eat in Thailand.

Tourism impact

At least 20,000 travelers from Wuhan flew directly to Thailand in January, according to Flight Master, a travel site in China.

Last year, nearly 11 million people traveled from China to Thailand — the most visitors from any nation. The prospect that Chinese tourism may be curtailed for a significant period is casting a pall over Thailand’s vital tourism industry.

Mr. Prayuth, who is also defense minister, ordered the army, navy and air force to send mobile medical units to Thailand’s international airports, including two in Bangkok, to help screen passengers arriving from China.

A pier near Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River, which flows through the capital, was turned into a medical checkpoint to screen crews arriving on ships from China via the Gulf of Thailand.

Bangkok boasts high-quality medical services and hospitals that attract patients from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The health scare has been accompanied by a xenophobic online outburst targeting the Chinese. A longtime U.S. ally in the region, Thailand under Mr. Prayuth has increased economic and security links with China and has even signed up for infrastructure investments under Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative.

A racist online outburst by a popular Thai graffiti artist known as Headache Stencil shocked and outraged his fans.

“Hey Chink! Please go back to ur s***-eating country. Our government need ur money to keep their power but you all not welcome for us now. #notwelcometothailand #backtourchinklandpls,” the artist posted recently on his Twitter site, which had 6,330 followers.

The English-language slur against Chinese is not common in Thailand.

“Disturbing to see such blatant racism by an artist that used to be respected by many liberals in Thailand,” tweeted Mathias Peer, a Bangkok-based correspondent for the German business newspaper Handelsblatt.

“I’m afraid that the debate over the #coronavirus will increase racial hatred against people from China. This is not acceptable!” Mr. Peer said.

Mr. Prayuth and Mr. Anutin have faced criticism for their lack of experience dealing with international medical emergencies, even while expressing public assurances that everything is under control.

“Our country can control the situation well. We have had patients who are being treated and are improving. Many have also gone home,” Mr. Anutin told reporters. “Detecting infected patients is a good sign because it shows that our system is efficient.”

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