Economic concerns trump Covid

A man pulls a heavily loaded cart through Bangkok's Sampeng Market near Chinatown.  The market is open, even if Covid-19 sub-variants are monitored.  (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

A man pulls a heavily loaded cart through Bangkok’s Sampeng Market near Chinatown. The market is open, even if Covid-19 sub-variants are monitored. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

The highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron keep people on the alert for a potential outbreak, but Covid-19 may not be the main concern as the economy advances.

The new viral strains come at a time when most people have been vaccinated, with 76.4% of Thailand’s 70 million residents having been vaccinated with two doses of vaccine and 42.6% having received more than two injections as of June 30, according to the Ministry of Health.

While people have some degree of protection from the virus, businesses are less immune to financial hardship, leading to more shutdowns in certain industries.

POVERTY FOCUS

Somchai Pornrattanacharoen, president of the Wholesale and Retail Trade Association, said people are now less afraid of infection because of the hardships they have faced from outbreaks over the past two years.

“Most people and businesses have become poorer after two years of difficulties and an economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 outbreaks. People are now concerned about their livelihoods and the cost of living,” said Mr Somchai.

“I would like the government to understand and genuinely address the problems of people who live in real poverty.”

He suggested that the government should take better care of small-scale traders and vendors who sell goods or food for a living.

In addition, farmers should be one of the first groups to qualify for state aid, Mr Somchai said.

He also called on the government to cut manufacturers’ production costs and promote border trade, especially for agricultural products.

“Government needs to take care of small traders and entrepreneurs so that there are more opportunities to trade or do business to earn a living. Rules and regulations need to be relaxed and adjusted to make it easier to do business so that they can earn more income to support their business.” family, said Mr. Somchai.

“If the government can do this, it will help the economy recover and be more active.”

Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said most of the patients infected with the subvariants are foreigners, with a small number of Thais infected.

A new study found that vaccinations and booster shots have helped reduce serious illness and deaths from the subvariants, Mr Sanan said.

He said drugs to treat infections are now available and people can access them, making it unlikely that Covid will affect the economic recovery.

“People feel less panicked and travel and spend money,” Sanan says.

“The chamber is still advocating self-defense during this time, which means staying clean and wearing masks in crowded places. We need to continue to monitor infection levels.”

Tourists play on the beach of Koh Samet. Nutthawat Wicheanbut

NO MORE RESTRICTIONS

Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), said tour operators will not be able to resist restrictions if a new wave of Covid comes and the government imposes strict measures to contain the outbreak.

She said the country is just entering the start of a recovery, with foreign arrivals expected to reach 7-10 million this year, well below nearly 40 million in 2019.

A recent THA survey found that the employment rate in the hotel sector is only 68% of 2019 levels, while 54% of hotel operators said they were unable to recruit skilled workers essential to the service sector.

In addition, 27% of respondents earned sales that were 11-30% of the total in the pre-pandemic period, while 19% earned less than 10% from pre-crisis.

“If there is a new viral wave, we have to learn to live with it without any restrictions,” said Ms Marisa.

“We are still facing many hurdles in our full reopening efforts, led by a lack of skilled workforces as workers don’t want to return to precarious jobs.”

She said THA and the Tourism Authority of Thailand discussed the matter last week and agreed that foreign workers are needed to perform functions that do not require high skills, such as cleaning and gardening.

However, Thai labor law requires private companies to use authorized agents for such hirings, which incur additional management costs, forcing the THA to search for hotels to directly hire migrant workers.

Ms Marisa said hotels in second-rate tourist destinations are struggling to maintain revenues because they have not benefited from the reopening policy and have reduced revenues from domestic guests, particularly from state gatherings and seminars, who have slashed budgets for years.

People wait to receive Covid-19 shots at the central vaccination center at Bang Sue Grand Station. Apichit Jinakul


ALWAYS ON WAIT

The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) believes that the industrial sector will be slightly affected by the Omicron sub-variants as it becomes the main economic driver for the economy in the second half.

Kriengkrai Thiennukul, chairman of the FTI, said he is aware that Covid-19 mutations will continue but is not too concerned as preventive measures in factories remain in place.

Many factories joined the government’s “Thai Stop Covid” scheme last year. The measure assesses hygiene standards in factories and those with acceptable standards receive e-certificates.

Another measure is “Bubble and Seal”, which was used for factories with more than 200 employees. It is intended to limit employee travel.

According to media reports, workers may have to stay in factories or travel alone between their dormitories and workplaces.

“We always brace ourselves for a possible new outbreak, but we have experience in dealing with the virus,” said Mr Kriengkrai.

“More importantly, we are never on our guard.”

The Thai economy slumped as repeated Covid-19 outbreaks since 2020 led to various restrictions on activities.

As the pandemic in Thailand appeared to be under control, the Russia-Ukraine war that began in February 2022 contributed to higher energy prices and soaring inflation.

However, he said he is confident that companies will survive the crises because they have risk management plans in place.

“The country’s reopening offers hope for businesses as tourism is expected to resume. But we still need to be careful about possible infections caused by tourists,” Mr Kriengkrai said.

During the war, exports will continue to be an economic engine, he said.

“Processed food manufacturers are exporting more and will generate 1.2 to 1.3 trillion baht this year due to higher purchase orders from abroad,” Mr Kriengkrai said.

The FTI chairman said he saw no signs of layoffs or plans to cut the workforce.

In fact, the labor-intensive food industry needs more workers to support production, he said.

Mr Kriengkrai previously said that the number of Thai and migrant workers in the food industry was estimated at 500,000, but after the onset of Covid-19, it disappeared to 300,000 workers.

If no setback is caused by another outbreak, more tourist arrivals should help boost the economy, he said.

“The FTI is confident that GDP will grow by 2.75-3% this year,” said Mr Kriengkrai.

Before the Omicron sub-variants made headlines, Covid-19 was not mentioned as one of the main concerns of factory operators in a survey conducted by the FTI to calculate the Thailand Industry Sentiment Index in May. About 1,323 companies in 45 industry clubs were interviewed as part of the FTI.

Covid-19 was seen as a factor of “decreasing concern”, according to the findings.

The higher price of energy was the main concern, receiving 85.5% of the vote, followed by concerns about the global economy (65.7%) and concerns about the domestic economy (59%).

People in masks walk on Silom Road in Bangkok. Somchai Poomlard

PAST BATTLE

When Thailand was badly hit by the Delta variant in mid-2021, the manufacturing industry registered an alarming number of infected workers.

The Ministry of Industry reported last August that infections were detected in 13 factories on average every day, with the food and electronics industries at the top of the list of caseloads.

The figures were based on a survey of 749 factories in 62 provinces between April 1 and August 17.

The ministry found new infections in 800 workers a day, accounting for 4% of the total daily infections in Thailand at the time.

In total, up to 53,135 infected workers were identified during the study.

According to the findings, the top five industries where infections were reported were food (136 factories), followed by electronics (103), metals (65), clothing (64) and plastics (57).

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