Thai PM, Officials Suspect Foreign Workers as Source of New COVID-19 Outbreak

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai PM, Officials Suspect Foreign Workers as Source of New COVID-19 Outbreak A migrant worker stands next to barbed wire in front of a closed shrimp market, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, Dec. 20, 2020.

The Thai prime minister and health officials said Monday that foreign workers who entered the country illicitly were the likely source of a record outbreak of coronavirus cases detected at Thailand’s largest seafood market complex, where hundreds of migrants from Myanmar have been infected.

Thailand until last Thursday had contained the number of COVID-19 infections to only about 4,200 since the first case was detected here in January – compared with much higher numbers in its neighbors Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

But the caseload shot to nearly 5,300 on Monday after more than 900 cases – mostly among workers from Myanmar – were confirmed at the market complex in Samut Sakhon province, south and west of the greater Bangkok limits, health authorities said.

“Today, however, we found more infected workers, as inspections were done where the workers were,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters. “It was safe when they were here until they went back home and sneaked back in.”

The Thai leader was referring to migrants who had entered the country via illicit means although, for months on end now, Thailand has sealed its borders to enforce a ban on foreign workers coming here during the pandemic.

Prayuth also warned Thai employers that they would be punished it they hired undocumented workers.

“The businesses that harbor illegal workers will be shuttered,” Prayuth said. 

The mega-markets in Samut Sakhon employ tens of thousands of migrants from Thailand’s next-door neighbors. Ninety percent of those who tested positive for the virus in the past few days are from Myanmar, officials said.

As of Monday, Thai health authorities tested some 4,700 people working at the seafood markets for COVID-19. The government has shut down the markets and quarantined those who tested positive to their living quarters.

On Monday, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said he had ordered a 100-bed field hospital to be set up in the vicinity of the markets and apartments where workers were now living under a lockdown.

As many as 535 new cases among market workers – a daily record – were confirmed on Saturday, on the eve of local elections in Thailand’s 76 provinces outside Bangkok.

The polls went ahead on Sunday as scheduled despite the viral outbreak in Samut Sakhon, with more than 27.6 million voters going to cast ballots in the first provincial elections since a military coup in 2014. Voters wore masks and practiced social distancing, but the turnout in Samut Sakhon was considerably lighter than other parts of the country, election officials said.

The outbreak at the seafood complex was first detected on Dec. 17, when a 67-year-old Thai woman, who owns a stall in the central shrimp market tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, a senior public health official said it was likely that migrant workers from Myanmar workers were the carriers of the disease.

“Experts agreed on the hypothesis that the spread this time started out from the Myanmar workers. About 90 percent of the positive tests are on Myanmar workers and some migrated from Myanmar,” said Dr. Wichan Pa-one, the director of tropical disease section at the Thai Department of Disease Control.

“To prove the hypothesis, there will be a laboratory examination of the DNA structure of the COVID found there,” he said.

An official with the same department, meanwhile, told the Lao Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) that at least one Laotian market worker had been infected with the coronavirus. 

Elsewhere in Thailand, some Myanmar migrant workers employed at a department store in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Myanmar border, had also tested positive, said Moe Gyo, chairman of the Joint Action Committee for Burmese Affairs (JACBA).

“Two people from the well-known Hong Long department store in Mae Sot tested positive on December 20 and the store has been closed. Mahachai and Mae Sot are the towns with the largest number of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand,” Moe Gyo told the Myanmar Service of RFA, a sister entity of BenarNews.

“So it could have a large impact on waves of the COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand. Thai authorities believe that they can control the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Officials at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, meanwhile, could not be immediately reached for comment.

In Thailand, a representative of the Migrant Working Group (MWG), which advocates for foreign workers, argued that migrants from neighboring countries were not to blame.

“The province and the anti-COVID task force prematurely pointed the fingers at the workers to make them look bad. The government should instead test them and legalize their status, add them to the system of social welfare and medical plan for the sake of a long term solution,” Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator with the MWG, told BenarNews.

He said there were roughly 260,000 Myanmar workers in Samut Sakhon – the epicenter of Thailand’s seafood industry – but the number could have risen to 350,000 during the pandemic because workers who had lost their jobs in other sectors could have found new ones in the seafood trade.

The chamber of commerce for Samut Sakhon estimated that economic losses from the shutdown of the seafood markets range from 400 million to 500 million baht (U.S. $13.3 million to $16.6 million) a day, according to the Bangkok Post Newspaper.

The Myanmar and Lao services of Radio Free Asia (RFA) contributed to this report. 


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