Thailand will face four major challenges in the “new normal” following the Covid-19 crisis, according to former deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai.
The biggest concern, he says, will be public health, despite the fact Thailand has drawn plaudits from around the world for the way it has contained the coronavirus so far.
Surakiart says the challenge is still very much present, given the fact that the global pandemic continues to rage in other countries and some are experiencing a second wave just when they thought they had it under control.
A rise in the number of new infections in several countries, including Singapore, South Korea and Australia, is a warning that the virus could flare up again at any time if Thailand lowers its guard, he said.
If the authorities are forced to lock down businesses again here due to a surge in new cases, efforts to revive the country’s economy will be badly impacted.
The second challenge was the government’s “travel bubble” and “travel corridor” policy, in which certain groups of foreigners are allowed to reenter Thailand to aid the economic recovery, Surakiart said.
He doubted such a tourism promotion was worth it, however, estimating that the number of people interested in coming to Thailand for medical treatment from the 14 countries believed to be safe from the spread of the coronavirus was rather small. At the same time, opening the door to a large number of general tourists would be a real challenge.
Thailand’s tourism industry could at one time count on about 40 million tourists arriving each year but this was no longer possible. “We may have to shift our focus to give health tourism a high value, despite a considerably smaller number of visitors,” he said.
Moreover, as the number of business travellers is likely to be fewer than in previous years, business-oriented hotels would be less necessary than holiday resorts, he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made video conferences a substitute for face-to-face meetings, saving people a lot in travelling and accommodation costs, while producing a comparable result.
The third challenge was deciding how to best revive the economy. “We have to fully stimulate the finance sector because we can no longer pin our hopes on exports, which already had a serious problem before Covid-19,” he said.
What’s more, the country would do well to become more self-reliant in terms of food and public health security, he said.
China, for instance, had assigned provinces with specific tasks, for example producing face masks or medical equipment, to ensure it always had sufficient supplies of these essential products.
Surakiart suggested that Thailand should prioritise its investment on developing new technologies for industry. In the farming sector, for instance, developing new organic food technologies would be useful in the promotion of good health and this was likely to be on the agenda in many countries.
The last challenge lay with the country’s education sector, especially at the higher education level, he said.
Thailand has had problems in education for a long time, given the large number of unemployed university graduates each year hundreds of thousands of them cannot find work, he said.
One merit of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has hastened the introduction of something these universities had only expected to begin implementing over the next two years… online education.
Struck by the outbreak, these universities have had no choice other than to immediately shift to an online education platform, he said.
The overall education system also needs to be adjusted, he said, adding that short online training courses were now in high demand as many people had lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 economic impact.
These unemployed wanted online occupational training to equip them with new skills so they could begin new jobs, such as making products and selling them over the internet, he said.
Companies throughout Thailand were also considering switching to different businesses, he added, and they needed training courses to reskill and upskill their staff to support their transition.
Surakiart himself has largely adjusted to the new normal. Before the pandemic arrived, he used to travel around the world frequently to attend meetings and forums.
Although Covid-19 has severely limited his ability to attend such meetings in person, he said it hadn’t prevented him fulfilling his obligations because he has adopted teleconference technology to attend those meetings and forums as usual, the only difference being that he now do it from home.
“Teleconference technology is allowing me to become even busier,” he said. “As a member of the advisory board of a business overseas that normally convenes three times a year, I’ve already had four meetings in the past three months [via teleconference].”
Surakiart sees both strengths and weakness for Thailand in this crisis.
One strength is a strong public health system that ensures people don’t succumb to the worst of the virus but the weakness is people’s tendency to quickly lower their guards against the spread of the virus.
As for how Thailand can do better in the current crisis, the former deputy PM said food security and public health security should be the government’s main focus.
It was also important for the government to create “trust tourism”, to gain the confidence of people coming to Thailand, either for business or leisure. “Those who visit Thailand will need to be assured they will be totally safe from contracting the disease,” he said.