Glyn Morgan, a professor at Syracuse University, recently categorized the different strategies that states have been pursuing to respond to the coronavirus. One is what he terms the “Darwinian state”: the state favors limited social distancing and instead largely protects the economy, albeit at immense human cost to those most vulnerable to the virus.
The model that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has followed, however, is the “Hippocratic state,” where the government enforces strict social distancing measures at the expense of the economy to maximize public health.
It was the right choice. Innumerable lives were saved due to the government’s decision to impose its draconian lockdown. Crisis prevention measures often seem like an overreaction because nothing happens afterwards, but that is the point: the crisis is prevented and nothing happens.
Yet it was a fight that has worn out the nation. The Thai economy, anemic even before the crisis, has been hit especially hard by coronavirus. An economy dependent on the tourism industry has suddenly been starved of all tourists. Business confidence is at its lowest point in history.
And the personal costs are immense. Take mass unemployment, captured insufficiently in the official statistics due to Thailand’s large informal economy. Or the taxing toll of mounting mental health issues. The government’s failure to deal adequately with these problems, to name just a few, ensures that a society spared from an epidemic was thrown into a different nightmare altogether.
“If we are victorious in one more battle,” Pyrrhus of Epirus said, “we shall be utterly ruined”: both a frank admission that victory sometimes obscures the costs incurred to attain it, and an immortal quote that gave rise to the term Pyrrhic victory in the English language.
To describe Thailand’s war with coronavirus in such a way would be unfair. But it is also beyond clear that this state of affairs cannot continue. The costs of a Hippocratic state are so high, even Pyrrhus himself would probably have balked.
The government has duly begun to lift restrictions on ordinary life, and more businesses are expected to reopen in the coming weeks. We will now get used to the somewhat strange scenes of families sitting a table apart to eat out at restaurants, or even, if the prime minister’s proposal is taken up, of people rushing around in shopping malls in order to not exceed a two hour limit on shopping.
This raises a different question entirely, however. Given that a vaccine is not expected for another year, a return to full normalcy would be immorally Darwinian. So how do we balance the need to restart the economy with prioritizing public health? To what extent can we actually return to life as we knew it? What should our new normal look like?
Professor Morgan outlined two scenarios for the post-pandemic world. One is what he terms the “hygienic state,” Strong social norms such as mask wearing, self-quarantining and the free adoption of contact-tracing apps ensure that the spread is controlled mainly through public vigilance. Another option is the “techno-surveillance state”, where an “authoritarian technocracy” enforces mandatory technology and apps to control the population.
I am not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. I do not know which option, or indeed whether either option will be effective in preventing a second wave of infections.
I do know that the Thai state, despite a likely innate desire from its leaders for greater autocracy, is unlikely to have the capacity to actually institute any authoritarian technocracy, so it seems that as society continues to reopen, the government will be relying mainly on a sense of civic responsibility on the part of Thai citizens to ensure that infections remain low.
Yet there are also a number of things that can be suggested to the government as it confronts difficult choices.
Firstly, no amount of civic responsibility can prevent infections if in the end people are put in situations where they cannot practice at least a modicum of social distancing. This was exemplified at the Siam BTS station, where delays in trains meant that a massive rush-hour crowd was bunched together.
It is probably impossible for the government to procure more trains or to prevent such delays, given that this has been a problem for years. But it can at least alleviate the number of people traveling by mandating that companies offer an option to work from home for those who are able to work remotely, even after the lockdown has largely eased.
Secondly, the government must continue to provide assistance to those whose work cannot resume even after the lockdown is over. With so many dependent on the tourism industry, which has no real prospect of recovering given that ordinary travel is unlikely to resume while coronavirus continues to rage on internationally, many will continue to suffer from much reduced income.
Finally, there is no need for the government to reinvent the wheel. Other countries — South Korea in particular — have successfully restored some semblance of normalcy to their societies while preventing a resurgence of the virus. South Korea did this through a mix of expansive testing and zero-tolerance isolation. They are a model for the Thai government to emulate.
Ironically, locking down has been easier side of the equation. A cabinet dominated by generals, which has often stumbled through other roles of government, has found a task that required military discipline rather easy to do. Reopening requires, however, more creativity and the need to make a more complex set of calculations.
Indeed, now comes the hard part.