On February 5, 2020, “yours truly” boarded a Thai International flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Most people were fully cognizant of COVID-19 but had no comprehension of what loomed ahead. The Thai flight was reasonably normal with some masks and an early morning meal service that included champagne if you liked-we are not here for a long time but a good time which gets shorter by the virus day. As there was little air traffic, we landed early and, upon reaching the temperature check prior to entering immigration, there was one man being restrained by force as he had a high temperature which was not shocking as he had arrived from China. Temperature checks were also the norm during the China SARS pandemic which was kind of a special, unpleasant flashback.
The entry as illustrated above was otherwise uneventful until reaching our office where a mask was offered and declined. In fact, experts at the renowned Cleveland Clinic confirmed that while the mask might prevent the spread by those with the virus, it is of no use if you maintain a six-foot distance from others.
Following a great visit with our office staff, a hurried return trip to the airport and hopping on an Air Vietnam return flight to Bangkok, there were Air Vietnam flight attendants in full COVID-19 dress code offering no food much less, needed wine. Upon entering the Thai airport, there were hordes of mainland Chinese seeking visas upon entry. Making one’s way through the hordes while holding one’s breath can be challenging though being an inveterate swimmer provides some measure of training. It is good that Chinese requiring visas have special lines though, sadly, they are adjacent to the Business Class lane of Air Vietnam.
On March 24, The Financial Times published an article that supported earlier observations, Vietnam’s Top-Down Government Keeps Epidemic at Bay. Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, whom the author has met and for whom holds great respect, warned on January 25 that the epidemic was roaring across the border and would soon reach Vietnam. The “top-down” capable government of Vietnam then focused on isolating infected people and tracking down their second and third hand contacts. “Mass testing is good, but it depends on the resources of each country,” said Tran Dac Phuc, as senior health official advising Vietnam’s Emergency Operations Center.
The Vietnamese financially punish people for not wearing a mask as shown below. It goes like this...there are rules in Vietnam so one follows them or pays the consequences for failure to do so. Sometimes one has to make a point in desperate times.
Now comes neighbor Thailand, the “Mai Pen Rai” (never mind) of the world and one of the most wonderful places in the world in most normal circumstances. As we weathered the initial COVID-19 storm in Thailand with daily reports in The Bangkok Post until we left for New York on February 6, we thought Thailand had survived the first wave of virus-infected Thais by Chinese visitors and things had normalized.
However, on March 31, the Nikkei Asian Review published an article entitled Coronavirus Exposes Thai Military’s Off-The-Books Enterprises. The public health officials of Thailand had determined that the military-owned Lumpini Boxing Stadium in Bangkok had been the source of a massive uptick in virus cases in one weekend. The infections were traced to a tournament of Muay Thai (kick boxing) held on March 6 which the Military had defied a request by the Sports Authority of Thailand to cancel the event.
Now, having been to a Muay Thai event at Lumpini stadium, rest assured they are exciting, though it is not well-known that it is an “off-the-books” fundraiser for the Thai military. In fact, sources advised the Nikkei Asian Review that the eleven boxing events were to raise funds for the military cadet class that the army commander calls his. The attendees represented all of the usual suspects who are dependent on the military for income. You will note that there is a goodly supply of masks in the audience.
Well, on March 27, 2020, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha buttressed his power with an emergency decree to control the narrative of the spreading coronavirus pandemic which his critics say is a form of censorship. Interestingly, controlling press conferences and dissemination of COVID-19 information is not unlike the path followed today by Thailand’s big brother America during the futile Vietnam War. The U.S. focused on body counts in those days which may not be that different from today’s commentary. You may remember that Prayut led a military coup to seize control of Thailand in 2014 to then emerge in a “civilian government” a year ago.
So how does the contrast between Thailand with a population of some 69 million people and Vietnam with 95 million people compare in the old Vietnam War statistics? Recognizing that statistical reporting by both sides may be a bit jaundiced, the numbers do address order of magnitude differences. At this writing, Thailand has reported on the order of 2,000 cases of COVID-19 with 19 deaths. Vietnam, on the other hand, has reported just over 200 cases with no deaths. Everyone needs to form their own conclusions about the two systems-one rigid and effective and another flexible to the max! Maybe, it all depends on the pandemic prevalence around the corner.