Thailand’s success in containing COVID-19: “a whole of society” approach

With Covid-19 ravaging the globe today, it appears that only a handful of countries are taking effective measures in containing the pandemic, and prevailing in this battle so far. As these very few success stories are found mostly in Asian countries, there is a tendency among some observers to explain this phenomenon by so-called Asian mentality based on a strict discipline and compliance of orders from superiors. For instance, German-based South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han points to the fact that the countries winning the battle against Covid-19 are “Asian states like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore that have an authoritarian mentality which comes from their cultural tradition of Confucianism.”

By Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg


However, it would be an over-simplification to attribute this success solely to historical and cultural traits of certain Asian societies. On the one hand, it would be futile to label, for example, South Korea or Japan as “authoritarian”, which are in no way different from Western liberal democracies. On the other hand, not all countries, which are successfully battling the pandemics are traditional Confucian societies. In particular, apart from South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China at a later stage, other countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as Thailand and New Zealand have also shown remarkable resilience in battling Covid-19 in the aftermath of its outbreak.

From all the above-mentioned cases, Thailand’s example is quite unique and deserves a special attention. When Thailand became the second country to record the first case of Covid-19 outside of China last January, many feared that the country would be severely hit by the pandemic, given its large-scale tourist sector and that it was the peak of the tourist season. In 2019, Thailand received over 39 million tourists from around the world, while in January 2020, it had thousands of Chinese tourists including some 7 thousand from Wuhan, which was at the time the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, in spite of such large inflows of visitors from China, Europe and the US, Thailand managed to contain the coronavirus. As of 5 October 2020, there are only 3,590 registered cases with 141 of them active and 59 deaths.      

What explains Thailand’s success in containing the most dangerous menace of our times? According to Gita Sabharwal, the UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand, the country’s success lies in combination of government action, social responsibility and community solidarity. In other words, Thailand has successfully applied “a whole of society” approach, engaging the private sector, communities and civil society rather than simply imposing strict lockdown.   

There is no doubt that all those countries that have been successfully dealing with Covid-19, have effective healthcare systems in place and strong cooperation on the part of the public. However, what makes Thailand’s case unique is that a critical role was played by multitasking village health volunteers. This volunteer network was established in Thailand in 1977 as part of a primary health care system to raise awareness and encourage community participation. Back then Thailand's ratio of doctors per population made universal access to decent healthcare difficult, which led to initiation of the village health volunteer program, recruiting people from the local communities, to fill in the shortage of medical personnel.

Today, there are approximately 1,055, 000 health volunteers across the country, with over 15,000 of them working in Bangkok. Majority of them are women and each of them, depending on locations and communities, is in charge of up to 10 families.  During the present pandemic, they monitored people’s movement in and out of their villages, visited households in their communities, checked temperature, and disseminated information on Covid-19. Village health volunteers are part of Thailand’s communicable control disease units, which are found in all of its 77 provinces, and are working closely with health authorities to control the spread of the virus. Thus, it is no coincidence that this effective health system at all levels helped Thailand to mitigate the outbreak of Covid-19.

Thailand has developed robust and effective healthcare system as a result of hard work spanning several decades. In his interview to Thai PBS World on June 21, 2020, Dr. Supakit Sirilak, Deputy Permanent Secretary of Thai Public Health Ministry explained that the country launched a two-part strategy to develop its public healthcare system more than 50 years ago, the first part of which focused on health services and resulted in a significant growth in the number of medics with high levels of expertise, whereas the second part of the strategy centered on primary care – ensuring that the people have full access to vital health services including vaccination and other disease prevention measures. As Dr. Supakit further elaborated, an important component of the second part of the strategy was the creation of the system of village health volunteers.

Furthermore, the introduction of universal healthcare coverage (UHC) in early 2000’s has made an important contribution to overall improvement of the healthcare system, implying that with free treatment under the system, people felt confident enough to receive necessary medical help at their nearby hospitals. Therefore, in face of today’s pandemic all those suspected of Covid-19 are quickly quarantined and treated, enabling health authorities to efficiently curb the contagion.

In 2019, Thailand ranked the 6th in the Global Health Security Index and topped the rankings in Asia. It scored second highest for its health system, third on disease prevention and fifth on rapid response. Thailand’s health system, designed to adapt to changing needs and based on strong training in fighting communicable diseases, has played a key role in the country’s success in controlling Covid-19.

French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus through the character of Dr. Rieux in his novel ‘The Plague’ set in Oran, North Africa in 1940’s showed us that, during a crisis, sometimes simply doing the average, decent, right thing is, in a sense, more than heroic. Thus, it can be summarized that it is precisely this hard work and active participation of all members of the society rather than a mere compliance of orders from above, have led to Thailand’s success in containing and preventing the spread of Covid-19. 

Mr. Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg is a Mongolian career diplomat. From July 2015 to July 2020, he served as Ambassador of Mongolia to the Kingdom of Thailand. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Mongolian government.