BANGKOK - Thailand is pushing to downgrade from pandemic status within three months after having some coronavirus travel restrictions lifted recently.
Pre-arrival PCR testing for visitors to Thailand was removed last week in an effort to boost tourism. Experts have warned, though, that a spike of infections and public fear could prevent a smooth transition into an endemic.
Thailand's Ministry of Health said earlier this month the coronavirus pandemic in the country would be labeled as an endemic disease by July, promoting a return to "normal life."
Dr. Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Thailand, said caution must be maintained regarding the coronavirus, even if health officials decide to downgrade its status.
"We need to be clear that the endemic doesn't mean the disease will be less severe than what we experienced during the pandemic. To me, endemic only means that Thailand will be able to control the situation to a certain level that does not wreak havoc to the country's health care system," he told VOA.
Thailand is still battling a high number of cases of COVID-19, dominated by the omicron variant, and had a record daily high of 27,071 new infections on Friday.
On the plus side, vaccination rates also remain high. With a population of about 70 million, Thailand's health authorities have administered about 127 million doses of coronavirus vaccine since last year, including first, second and booster doses.
Gary Bowerman, an Asia tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said that Southeast Asian countries like Thailand have to tread carefully when setting future targets because of the unpredictability of the coronavirus.
"That's a staging post, is why they've said July. But as we've known over the past two years, setting any hard and fast deadline is fraught with risks," Bowerman said told VOA.
"Endemic status, it's a bit of a public messaging thing to try change mindsets within countries because it's a dramatic shift, what countries are going through right now after being completely closed for two years, now opening up. It's a big mindset change.
"It's not in the individual countries' hands to say it's an endemic, it's WHO (World Health Organization), they are the ones calling it. But I can understand why governments are doing it," he added.
A testing site in the car park of Thonburi Bamrungmaung Hospital allows Thai residents to take both rapid tests and PCR tests for COVID19 amid the surge of Omicron cases, Bangkok, Thailand on Feb.24, 2022 (Tommy Walker / VOA)
Thailand reopened its borders to tourism in October, leading with its Test & Go scheme that does not require quarantine. But the government had to quickly pause new pass applications in December because of the rise of new infections caused by the omicron variant. The scheme has since restarted again, which has seen hundreds of thousands of tourists enter since the start of the year.
In recent weeks, however, there has been a drop in arrivals from Russia, one of Thailand's key markets, because of the war in Ukraine.
PCR testing dropped
In efforts to further boost numbers from overseas, last week the Thai government announced that from April 1, visitors will not be required to take a PCR test before their arrival in Thailand.
"I think the objective is pretty clear from the Thai government, and that is rebuilding the economy. If they can reduce the requirements, they certainly will do that. The key variable is the virus," Bowerman added.
Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy. About 11% of Thailand's gross domestic product and some 20% of Thais were employed in tourism in 2019, according to the Bank of Thailand. The economy saw a 6.1% decrease in 2020 amid the pandemic, but it rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021 after an increase in exports and the return of tourist arrivals.
Although Thailand has been open to tourism for nearly six months, the country faces stiff competition for inbound tourism in the Southeast Asia region. Neighbors Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia have all recently opened international borders for arrivals, with Malaysia set to follow suit in April.
Fear among tourists
But restrictions are discouraging visitors to Thailand. Travelers are still required to take one PCR test upon entering the country and then a rapid antigen test on day five. But if any of those results come back positive, visitors must endure quarantine in state facilities.
Analyst Bowerman says there is fear among tourists who decide to travel to Thailand because of these risks.
"Those are the big barriers and fears for tourists: it's out of your control, if you get COVID, you don't have the option of sitting in your hotel for six days and sitting it out," he added.
"That's what COVID does, it's a dangerous virus. And that's what keeps it in the public consciousness. That makes it very hard toward any endemic policy because it still makes people fearful. That's part of endemic, it's not just how the public health system works, it is about the whole treatment and understanding of moving and living with it has to be part of everyday life. And I think in Southeast Asia we're still a long way from that."