In January, Thailand became the second country to confirm a COVID-19 case but, since then, the country has shown remarkable resilience and, as of late July, there had not been any recorded cases of domestic transmission for nearly two months. Gita Sabharwal, the UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand, explains that this success is thanks to a combination of government action, social responsibility and community solidarity.
Thailand’s overall response, and ability to curb infections, has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify Thailand, alongside New Zealand, as a success story in dealing with the pandemic. Of course, that success entirely depends on continued vigilance, a whole-of-society approach, and ramped up testing to prevent a second wave as borders open and full economic activities are resumed.
The economic impact of the pandemic has been serious, with predictions of an 8.1 per cent contraction of the economy in 2020. According to a recent survey, 65 per cent of people in Thailand report that their incomes are totally or very inadequate under pandemic conditions, with almost the same percentage saying that their finances had been adversely affected.
Vulnerable communities bear the brunt
Having started in my position just one week before the lockdown, my view of Thailand has been very COVID-centric. We have all personally felt the effects of the pandemic in many different ways and a large number of UN staff in Thailand have been apart from their families for months due to travel restrictions – my own family reunification was postponed for the first half of the year, and I hope to see my husband next month for the first time since the outbreak. At the same time, we are profoundly aware that vulnerable communities are bearing the brunt of this crisis, making our advocacy and work with partners all the more important.
As the Resident Coordinator, my focus has been on working closely with the UN Country Team to develop the UN’s comprehensive response strategy to the pandemic and positioning it to be cutting edge, forward leaning, and offering thought leadership to sustain development gains and build back better.
Our understanding of the impact of the crisis and its implications on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continues to unfold as we speak. It is only now that we are more fully understanding the implications of COVID-19 on agriculture and farm households, and the more long-term social impact.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres set the tone for UN’s approach with his Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity plan to counter the severe socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, while emphasising the imperative for a comprehensive whole-of-society and whole-of-government response.
Cash handouts and loans
The Royal Thai Government’s contribution to the UN’s COVID-19 Fund speaks to this shared responsibility. Similarly, the role played by the 1 million health volunteers, two-thirds of whom are women, in contact tracing across the country speaks to the whole of society approach.
The government’s stimulus packages have been comprehensive, rapid and well-sequenced, constituting 15 per cent of GDP. Almost half of respondents to a recent survey reported having received government support. Modelling estimates suggest that while government expenditure is emerging as the most effective means to support growth and employment, cash handouts followed by soft loans are the next best measures. In partnership with the National Economic and Social Development Council, the national economic planning agency of Thailand, UN Thailand will monitor the impact of these fiscal stimulus packages targeted at local economies to inform government programming.
The government will also need to closely watch the impact at the household level in the third and fourth quarters, and further refine the mix of stimulus measures with sharper targeting. In terms of vulnerabilities, the impact assessment indicates that youth could potentially lose out the most given rising unemployment and with nearly half a million young people joining the labour force at a time when jobs are difficult to secure. Similarly, women and men are impacted equally, yet differently, which will serve as a drag to the recovery process.
Increased health and social protection
UN Thailand’s strategy focuses on investing in partnerships with a clear-eyed view to build back better, while keeping the SDGs on track. The plan combines the direct health response based on the principle of leaving no one behind while investing in forward-looking policies to protect jobs and economies as well as to strengthen social capital.
Our immediate health response focuses on supporting the Government to strengthen surveillance and laboratory capacity, as well as to facilitate private and public sector engagement on vaccine research and pilot a “new normal” health service through tele-medicine. It also ensures that vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees have access to PPE and health services.
In order to leave no one behind, UN Thailand has prioritised social protection, including successfully advocating for augmenting old age, child, and disability grants. In dialogue with the Royal Thai Government, we are supporting real-time monitoring of gender-based violence and violence against children while strengthening prevention and response. The UN is also mapping digital infrastructure to understand geographies and communities that are underserved to bridge the digital divide and support e-learning platforms for schools.
Rebuild a more equitable society
In partnership with local communities, the UN is scaling up sustainable tourism models which protect biodiversity, linking supply chains with markets to strengthen the network of community food management, as well as working with small and medium enterprises to support green technology to jumpstart the local economy, and supporting dialogue with youth across the country to showcase innovations which have created jobs for the marginalised in response to the crisis.
All evidence suggests that the pandemic will impact the SDGs, but it doesn’t have to, as long as there is effective reprioritisation, and public and private investments are strategically maximised. A resilient recovery will demand sustained economic support, long-term thinking, and policies which include a focus on building back better to jumpstart local economies and enable a green recovery.
Polling suggests that more than one-third of people in Thailand have donated cash, food or supplies during the pandemic, with most donations under 5,000 baht (about 160 US dollars). To me, this speaks of the social capital of the country and in many ways the glue that holds society together. There is also anecdotal evidence that in more marginalised regions, such as the northeast and deep south, the scale of donations has been higher.
We have seen in Thailand and around the world that times of crisis bring out the best of people. COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges, but also opportunities to build back better. UN Thailand remains committed to working collaboratively to recover from the pandemic and to rebuild for a more equitable, just and resilient society.