Expats fear jabs are not for them
As Covid cases and the death toll in Thailand steeply climbs, Dr Opas Kankawinpong, head of the Disease Control Department, on Thursday came out to pacify fears of the foreign community in Thailand — at last.
“Anyone living in Thailand, be they Thai or foreign, will be able to get the vaccine if they want it,” he said.
The statement nevertheless has done little to calm the expat community — of about three million — of fears they would be sidelined in the government’s rush to administer limited supplies to a frenzied citizenry whose Covid-free bubble has now been truly burst.
The government’s message about how the authority will provide the foreign community much needed Covid vaccinations has been mixed.
Only two days prior, the Ministry of Public Health spokesman Rungrueng Kitphati proclaimed that: “The vaccines right now are only reserved for Thai people who are now at a high-risk level or living in the severe outbreak areas.”
There remains much scepticism about how the government will overcome hurdles to provide Covid vaccines to foreigners living here.
The authority itself struggles to provide vaccines to its citizenry. Currently, just over 1.5 million doses of vaccine have been administered, or fewer than 800,000 people out of the 70 million population being vaccinated — and that puts the kingdom broadly on par with Laos and Brunei in terms of proportion of population inoculated.
The country still lags behind many of its neighbours in the region, not to mention Singapore, where almost 20% of the 5.7 million population have been inoculated, or Cambodia where 8% of about 16.5 million of the population have been vaccinated.
There are many reasons for the slow progress; some understandable given this is a product that everyone in the world wants at the same time.
An awkward preference for leaning on and waiting for the AstraZeneca vaccine — produced locally by Siam Bioscience — has served as a sharp lesson for the government which needs to provide vaccines to help the country face unexpected cluster infections which have arisen since early this year.
All of which goes to say that the heat is now on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the cabinet to get cracking. And many foreigners living here fear that, despite their contributions to Thailand and their payment of taxes and social security, they will receive little priority or assistance in obtaining access to whichever brand of vaccine is rolled out under a mechanism that is solely state-controlled.
The heat intensified this month when “Mor Prom”, a mobile phone application for people to book appointments to get state Covid vaccine inoculations, opened on May 1.
Foreign residents feel they have been sidelined as the app is open only for Thais. After foreigners complained, the authority said vaguely the Mor Prom app will open vaccine bookings for foreigners from June, without any clean official policy and guidelines to back that up.
The foreign community — despite having the financial means — has been left with no options. They cannot go to private hospitals, as there are no alternative vaccines imported into Thailand.
It may be partially true that Westerners who have made a life for themselves here in Thailand really are wealthy enough to pay for their own inoculations when they become available and those Thais on the bottom rungs of society are more deserving of special consideration.
But it sometimes gets forgotten that many foreigners who live here do so without the social or family support networks that natives of any nation usually enjoy.
The government’s feet-dragging will, in the long-term, affect the country’s aspiration to become a regional hub for investment, education and even medication — no longer a place where foreign talent comes to work, stay and even retire.
Scenic tourist sites, smiling Thai style hospitality and the low cost of living might be a short-term selling point for Thailand. In the end, foreign talent will choose to work and settle in countries that can protect their safety.
Apparently, Thailand pales in comparison next to countries that have progressed in providing Covid vaccinations.
For example, Singapore — where locals, foreign residents and labourers have been given vaccines since early this year — again proves its mettle and reputation as a safe city, suitable to be a financial and medical hub in this region.
It is time for the Thai government to acknowledge that medical welfare provided to foreign residents and migrant labourers will play a crucial role in making the country a desirable place to live and to invest.
The government must do its best to assist all those who call Thailand home.