A More Balanced Narrative of the Covid-19 Pandemic in the Context of Thai Public Diplomacy
As an Asian partner to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since 2000, Thailand participated in the Asian Conference 2020 on Multilateral Responses to Global Security Challenges in October 2020 via videoconference. Although the European-Asian partnership is realized in various other fora, the OSCE partnership with Asia itself is one important platform where Europe and Asia can learn from each other on how best to deal with global security challenges.
At the conference, Thailand raised many important issues, beginning with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the world further into the age of disruption, while highlighting the ever closer interconnectedness between local and global issues. For foreign ministries, the crisis compels a revision of how public diplomacy should be managed in the era of disruption.
Take 2020, for example, now towards the end of the year, when many countries in Europe are still facing the risk of a second wave. Meanwhile, some countries in Asia, such as Thailand, have already begun accepting tourists in the Special Tourist Visa (STV) scheme since October 2020. In Thailand’s case, we are also looking beyond disease control measures and gradual reopening of the country towards the manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Siam Bioscience Co., Ltd, has already entered into an agreement with British-Swedish company AstraZeneca to manufacture vaccines for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia as “public goods,” which truly reflects the spirit of diplomacy for the people. The pandemic has indeed affected regions in different scales and ways, and enabled Thailand to concretize its vision on strengthened national health security through regional health security.
One interesting topic of discussion as a sub-agenda at the OSCE conference was the “nexus” between health security and access to information. A case in point is Thailand, where part of the success was in the focus in the battle of information. Today, we are overwhelmed by misinformation, disinformation, fake news, deep fake news, and what not. Apart from existing strong health system and village health volunteers that helped the country contain COVID-19 to a certain degree, Thailand focused on managing communication and flow of information. The Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), set up by the government in a timely manner as an integrated agency to handle all aspects of the pandemic, brought a sense of calm and feeling of inclusion of all groups in Thailand, while creating a universal understanding of the 5 Plus 1 measures (wear masks, wash hands, maintain hygiene, physical distancing, avoid congested areas and register in the application). The massive following to televised briefings trusted the transparency of the CCSA.
In Thailand, while we tried to balance public health, the economy and access to information, we felt that it was important to nurture a sense of social responsibility in sharing news that is accurate, timely, and useful to the wider public. It is also important to seize the opportunity from this pandemic to develop media literacy by raising more awareness on what constitutes credible information and empowering citizens to counter health misinformation that has the potential to increase public health risks.
During the peak of the pandemic in Thailand, the government recognized the people’s right to participate in decision-making that affects their lives, meeting with various sectors, to involve them and ensure that these measures respond to their specific situation and needs. Health authorities and relevant experts were enabled to speak freely on their areas of expertise and recommendations to the public. Journalists widely reported on the pandemic, including news coverage on public opinion that are critical of the government’s response. The individual’s right to privacy and freedom of movement have been respected as much as possible, as long as they do not pose a health risk to others. On the state quarantine system, in Thailand it is accepted by society as the necessary approach to protect the right to collective health security in society—it is therefore pertinent for non-Thais to understand this.
We learned that we must continue to do our utmost to care for people who may be at risk of being excluded. We know that government is held to account, and while public trust must be earned, public sacrifice is also critical.
A more “balanced narrative” of the COVID-19 story of Thailand must begin with a comprehensive reflection of the challenges we faced. It should continue by an acceptance of the facts, as read in mainstream interpretation of events, that Thailand, like other countries around the world, faced many obstacles in dealing with the first global crisis of the digital age. Throughout this entire year, we saw the divergence in global policy responses as the challenge of navigating an unprecedented global situation under conditions of enormous uncertainty.
The narrative presented should seek to communicate that, irrespective of the different scorecards given on Thailand’s management of COVID-19, there are certain local practices which have been commended globally for its effective containment of the pandemic. These good practices are what we wish to share, as we strategically adapt and engage in social learning to best deal with global security challenges in the future.