Thailand to close crowded sites, delay holiday after cases up 33 to 147

Customers in Bangkok looking at empty shelves at a supermarket after panic buying from outbreak fears. (AP pic)

BANGKOK: Thailand plans to shut crowded venues such as schools and universities and postpone its traditional New Year holiday in an effort to restrain the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The temporary moves are due as soon as Wednesday once Cabinet approves the plan, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said in a briefing. Officials said Thailand’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 jumped by 33, a daily record, to 147.

“The danger from Covid-19 is the nation’s priority,” Wissanu said Monday in Bangkok. “The economic damage is secondary. We need to make people’s lives the priority. We can try to cope with the damage to tourism and industries later when the situation eases.”

The Thai economy is reeling from a collapse in the critical tourism sector amid lockdowns worldwide to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

A drought and delayed public spending are additional blows, increasing the odds of recession even before the latest curbs.

Decisions on closures will be tailored depending on the situation in provinces, Wissanu said.

Universities will be shut and courses moved online, Ratchada Thanadirek, a government spokesperson, told reporters separately, adding that places like pubs and boxing stadiums will also be affected.

Holiday postponed

The traditional New Year holiday, known as Songkran, will no longer fall on April 13 to April 15, but instead will happen later in the year. The April break is normally a fixture in the Thai calendar marked by riotous celebrations with water pistols.

“The government will need to use intense measures to stop the spread of virus,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said in a televised speech Monday evening in Bangkok. “The outbreak will continue for a while.”

A two-day spike in Covid-19 cases over Sunday and Monday stoked fears that Thailand is on the cusp of a larger outbreak. Some Thais have resorted to panic buying of groceries.

Wissanu said the country hasn’t yet tipped into widespread local transmission.

Thai stocks are Asia-Pacific laggards amid global rout

Investors have taken fright, making the benchmark SET equity index emerging Asia’s worst performer with a drop of about 34% so far in 2020.

The baht has tumbled almost 7% against the dollar over the same period, the second-largest decline in an Asian basket tracked by Bloomberg.

Prayuth’s ruling coalition last week rolled out stimulus steps designed to deliver a near-US$13 billion economic boost, but their effectiveness is in doubt after previous packages fizzled.

The Bank of Thailand’s scope to follow in the footsteps of the US Federal Reserve by slashing borrowing costs to near zero, from the current 1%, may be limited by rules making 0.5% an effective lower bound.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of the economy, but the government estimates arrivals may drop 24% from last year, to 30 million people.

Citigroup has chopped its Thai growth forecast to 0.2% for this year from 2.2%, while Bangkok-based brokerage Phatra Securities Pcl predicts a 0.4% contraction.

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