PM: Thailand Weighing New COVID-19 Restrictions Amid Big Outbreak in Samut Sakhon

PM: Thailand Weighing New COVID-19 Restrictions Amid Big Outbreak in Samut Sakhon A health worker collects a nose-swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, Dec. 19, 2020.

Updated at 6:20 p.m. ET on 2020-12-22

Thailand is considering imposing a strict lockdown, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced Tuesday, after hundreds of new coronavirus cases were confirmed among a migrant-worker cluster in one province for a third straight day, with alarming secondary transmissions detected elsewhere.

In a nationally televised speech, Prayuth blamed migrants, who had entered the country illegally via the kingdom’s shuttered borders and evaded a mandatory 14-day quarantine, for the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases since the first infection was detected in Thailand in January.

“This latest flare up of infections in Samut Sakhon is primarily due to such illegal immigrants and they have brought much grief to the country,” Prayuth told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, referring to a province south and west of the greater Bangkok limits.

The Southeast Asian country had been among the least affected by the global pandemic, but the COVID-19 caseload shot up to more than 5,700 after 427 new infections were confirmed on Tuesday – mostly among migrant workers from Myanmar – at the country’s largest seafood market-complex in Samut Sakhon, according to the government’s anti-COVID-19 task force.

“As a result, I may need to introduce additional measures, especially to do with New Year celebrations and how, or whether, they should be conducted,” the prime minister said.

As of Tuesday, a total of nearly 1,300 infections were reported among the migrant workers at the seafood markets in Samut Sakhon, officials said about the outbreak, which was first detected in the province near Bangkok on Dec. 17.

Um Sophal, the deputy police chief of Cambodia's neighboring Banteay Meanchey province, told RFA on Tuesday that amid the outbreak in Samut Sakhon, "many Cambodian migrant workers" had been deported back home. A day earlier, he had said that at least 84 people were handed over to Cambodian police across the border and were relocated to a quarantine center, where they will remain under observation for 14 days.

"We accepted them and we sent them to the Ministry of Health," he said, adding that police had been stationed along the border to ensure that all returnees submit to quarantine.

Cambodia's Ministry of Interior said that around 120 Cambodians have returned home across the shared border with Cambodia's Oddor Meanchey province.

Sum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA Cambodian authorities should request that Thai police quarantine Cambodian migrant workers before returning them home to avoid a spread of the virus. He said deporting Cambodian workers without attending to their health is "inconsiderate" to other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Other infections

Meanwhile, at least 20 people in nine other provinces in Thailand who had been in contact with people in the seafood market in Samut Sakhon tested positive for COVID-19, according to Thailand's anti-COVID-19 task force.

Prayuth said he understood that people were looking forward to unwinding at year’s end even as small businesses hoped for extra seasonal income, but it was crucial to take precautions during this time.

“It is a decision that requires careful thought. But what the world has seen now is that being relaxed about health precautions leads to great economic suffering for everyone in the country,” the Thai PM said.

He also warned that his government would crack down on trafficking syndicates that smuggled migrants into the country in defiance of Thailand’s months-long ban on the re-entry of foreign workers during the pandemic.

“With regard to those networks that bring illegal immigrants into the country, they must be prosecuted without any leniency whatsoever, regardless of whether they may be people with official positions or otherwise,” Prayuth said.

Thailand had an estimated population of nearly 3 million documented foreign migrants as of January, according to the Ministry of Labor’s Department of Employment. But the number dropped to about 2.2 million, as hundreds of thousands of workers returned home since March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The smuggling of workers from next-door neighbors Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos had become more common in recent months, according to a report by Post Today, a local newspaper.

Many of these laborers paid brokers upwards of 9,000 baht (U.S. $298) to enter Thailand and find work, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, Thai authorities said they had arrested 79 migrant workers from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, from Dec. 1 to Dec. 18, who had sneaked into the country's four southernmost provinces that border Malaysia.

Since Sunday, an additional 72 Lao and 20 Vietnamese workers were arrested for the same reason, officials said.

On Monday, Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Santipong Thampiya acknowledged how difficult it was for Thailand to guard its extensive borders against illicit immigration.

“All seven task forces did their best, but it is hard to seal off the borderlines given its length is 5,526 km [3,434 miles]. It is a heavy burden to patrol the borderlines at all times,” Santipong said.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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