Thailand Scrambles to Curb Huge COVID-19 Outbreak in Prisons

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
2021-05-17
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Thailand Scrambles to Curb Huge COVID-19 Outbreak in Prisons Thai inmates are treated for COVID-19 infections in a field hospital set up at the Medical Correctional Institution in Bangkok, May 8, 2021.
Department of Corrections via Reuters

Thailand recorded 9,635 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, with close to 75 percent of them detected in prisons, as the justice minister ordered the kingdom’s entire inmate population to be tested for the virus.

Monday’s figure, which included 6,853 cases reported in prisons, nearly doubled a daily high of 4,887 cases recorded last week.

“[We] are going to proactively test inmates in all prisons, as well as 55,000 jail officials and other officials at the Department of Corrections,” Minister of Justice Somsak Thepsuthin said, adding that test results would be made public.

The corrections department reported that 311,540 people were being held in 143 prisons nationwide. Authorities did not say how many of the prisons had tested all staff and inmates, but 15 prisons that had tested all reported 10,384 inmates were infected with the coronavirus.

Somsak said his ministry, which oversees the corrections department, was investigating to determine how COVID-19 is spreading in prisons, as well as developing plans to inoculate prisoners and officials who have not been infected.

“As to where the virus came from and how they infected inmates, we are investigating that,” Somsak said.

The mass testing in prisons came after pro-democracy activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul disclosed on May 12 that she had tested positive.

She had been jailed since March 8 on a charge of violating the strict royal defamation law, Lese-Majeste, but released on bail from the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok on May 6.

In a separate press briefing on Monday, Corrections Director-General Aryut Sinthoppan said prisons across the nation had taken steps to identify prisoners who could be infected and test them.

“I’ve already ordered all prison commanders nationwide to find inmates with respiratory system and difficult breathing and take them out for testing, first thing, and to deal with provincial health authorities to come test all of the rest of them,” Aryut said.

Of Thailand’s total 111,000 COVID-19 infections, more than 82,000 have been reported since a third spike began at the start of April. By the end of March, the country’s death toll from the pandemic had reached 94. Since then, it has multiplied by more than six times, to 614 deaths recorded through Monday.

Criticism

Thailand has ordered a total of 61 million doses of vaccines from Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca along with 5.5 million doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech to go along with a 500,000-dose gift from Sinovac.

The nation had received about 3.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine as of early May.

Meanwhile, nearly 1.5 million of Thailand’s 70 million people have received their first vaccine doses and more than half of those – 781,606 – have received the second, according to government statistics.

Despite this, Thai citizens and observers are raising concerns that authorities have been slow to acquire vaccines and make them available to the public.

“The government failed to create confidence among people and disseminated information with discrepancies. It also had to fix the problems in a hurry because of such approaches,” said Thouchanok Sattayavinit, a health analyst and lecturer of Faculty of Political Science and Law, Burapha University.

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the government planned to have enough vaccines in a matter of weeks.

“We have 6 million bookings now which are in line with the number of vaccines to be acquired in June. I believe there will be more people sign up the next month,” Anucha told BenarNews.

The spokesman said a low rate of sign-ups for vaccine shots could have been caused by a lack of familiarity with online appointment apps.   

“The number of vaccine sign-ups is low in upcountry probably because they are not familiar with the applications and there has been fake news to confuse them,” Anucha said. “The government has tried to solve the problems. Doctors came out to give information to create public confidence.

“The village public health volunteers educated people how to sign up, while those who had jabs disclosed that there were no side effects.”

Last week, the Bangkok Post reported that authorities had announced a delay in opening promised walk-in vaccination sites in all provinces until next month.

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