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Thai cash handout program creates risky crowds amid coronavirus

Government's clumsy communication exposes public to greater chance of contagion

Thailand's Government Saving Bank did not offer new bank account opening services at branches on Monday and Tuesday. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- As the COVID-19 pandemic widens in Southeast Asia, Thailand has ramped up efforts to mitigate the economic impact -- but sometimes at the risk of greater contagion.

Long queues with minimal social distancing formed at state bank branches opening up an account for dispensing a 5,000 baht ($150) cash handout, while clumsy announcements from national and provincial administrations created crowds.

Foreigners have meanwhile not been spared long queues to comply with unbending visa requirements kept in place by the Immigration Bureau.

As of Tuesday, Thailand had confirmed 1,651 COVID-19 cases and ten fatalities with greater Bangkok at the outbreak's epicenter. The virus appears to be spreading slowly in provincial areas for now, with only 61 cases confirmed in 77 provinces.

To try and impede the spread, Thailand declared a state of emergency last week and implemented measures on Thursday to reduce contact between people. Prohibitions on public assembly and hoarding of goods were put in place, and people were advised not to travel between provinces.

The stringent emergency decree was accompanied by a 117 billion baht ($3.6 billion) stimulus package to mitigate the economic impact of the outbreak. The package included a monthly cash handout of 5,000 baht from April to June intended for some three million temporary workers, contract workers and self-employed people. The authorities had hoped the 5,000-baht relief might discourage them from leaving the capital and possibly spreading the virus upcountry.

Poor communication by the government caused people to rush to state banks, which they believed were the only places dispensing the funds as with some past disbursements. Fearful of creating infection hot spots, some branches closed for the weekend. And on Monday and Tuesday, banks were not offering account-opening services at physical branches.

The Bank of Thailand and the Thai Bankers' Association, which has promised to keep as many branches open as possible to ensure businesses can continue operating, stepped in on Saturday to explain the aid could be transferred to state and commercial bank accounts.

The central bank and banking industry also explained that the handout could be received through domestic cashless transfer system PromptPay as long as accounts were linked to national IDs. But the announcements did not come early enough to prevent people from queuing.

Despite the risks they took, not all registrants are eligible, according to Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana. "The applications will be vetted and screened thoroughly to ensure that they meet the criteria and those in need get it," Uttama said. "It takes seven days to process the applications at the earliest, but due to overwhelming demand, the process may take longer."

As of 2 p.m. on Monday, 19.8 million people had registered for the aid -- six times more than the government was expecting. Paying every applicant would cost nearly 300 billion baht, far exceeding the overall 117 billion baht budgeted. Uttama said registration nevertheless remains open to ensure all affected workers can access financial relief.

This was not the first time officials raised the contagion stakes. On Mar. 21, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration ordered the sudden closure of 26 types of business, including shopping malls, hair salons, spas, golf courses, and restaurants -- except for take-away meals. The purpose of the closure was to contain the epidemic within Bangkok, but instead there was a mass exodus of workers fleeing the high cost of living in the capital.

An estimated 80,000 people gathered on Mar. 22 at Morchit, Bangkok's northern bus terminal, hoping to get back to their home provinces and in some cases the borders with neighboring countries. The crowd raised the chances of contagion and also of spreading the disease in provincial areas.

Some 40,000 people crossed into Cambodia from Sa Kaeo province in eastern Thailand over the weekend. Tens of thousands massed at the Mae Sot checkpoint in Tak province in northwestern Thailand to cross over to Myawaddy in Myanmar. Thousands also turned up at bridges over the Mekong to Laos.

Poor communications have been a hallmark of the current government, and are something of a hangover from six years of military rule. The decree meanwhile returns emergency powers to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at a time when many had hoped the country would be moving away from authoritarianism.

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