A white-faced mannequin at Bangkok's deserted Siam Square shopping area on March 18, 2020. Photo: AFP

BANGKOK – As the global epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak shifts from China to Europe, so too are racist attitudes towards foreigners in the virus-hit kingdom of Thailand.

As officials impose new restrictions on inbound travelers, including newly-required health certificates and proof of health insurance, Caucasians are increasingly being blamed for the country’s growing outbreak of over 300 cases.

Those numbers have surged in recent days, rising from 117 on March 17 to 322 on March 20. Thailand has so far reported only one Covid-19 related death.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has blamed “dirty” Caucasian tourists for infecting Thailand with Covid-19.

On March 12, Anutin stated: “Ninety percent of Thais are wearing masks.  However, none of the Caucasians are wearing masks.

“This is the reason our country is being infected.  We should be more careful of the Caucasians than Asians.

“Right now, it’s winter in Europe, and with the [coronavirus] outbreak, they have all fled the cold and the virus to come into warm Thailand. Many of them are dirty and do not shower,” the statement, written in the Thai language, said.

Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul without a face mask in a file photo. Photo: AFO Forum via Bangkok Post/Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

The tweet was deleted hours after it was widely condemned.

The Health Ministry later told reporters that while indeed the Twitter account in question belonged to Anutin, his staff sometimes posted tweets on his behalf.

However, Anutin, who is believed to have prime ministerial ambitions, has not publicly apologized for the tweet.

Anutin is widely perceived as epitomizing Thailand’s erratic official response to the crisis.

The racist remarks also risk hitting the nation’s already devastated tourism industry, which contributes as much as 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) and relies heavily on top-spending Western travelers.

Officials have flip-flopped and contradicted one another in regard to various restrictions, including over key issues such as whether travel restrictions have or haven’t been imposed on certain countries.  

While health authorities have indicated most of the new cases have been local transmissions among Thais who recently traveled to heavily infected countries, including Italy, Japan and South Korea, Westerners are nonetheless bearing the brunt of the blame.

Commuters wearing face masks amid fears of the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, Bangkok, March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

Officials announced this week the closure of all schools nationwide and, in Bangkok, entertainment venues such as bars, massage parlors, and sports stadiums from March 18-31.

Thailand’s April 13-15 Songkran new year holiday water festival, immensely popular with Western and other foreign tourists, has also been postponed indefinitely.

It was not immediately clear from where Anutin, a construction tycoon rather than medical professional, derived his 90% statistic for mask-wearing Thais.

During a taxi ride on March 19 across Bangkok, the Thai capital, this correspondent saw roughly 50% of working, shopping or strolling Thais wearing face masks.

Even fewer people wear masks in towns outside of Bangkok, where so far there have been virtually no reported cases.

To date there have been no reported Covid-19 cases among European travelers or at the beachside and mountainous resort areas they tend to vacation.

Earlier on February 7, Anutin, whose family runs the Sino-Thai construction company, said on-camera during a Health Ministry media event in Bangkok:

“Those damn Caucasian tourists, that is something the embassies should be notified of, and the public as well, that they are not wearing medical face masks.

Western tourists without surgical masks in front of a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Photo: Facebook

“They need to be kicked out of Thailand!” the tycoon who became a politician said, notably while not wearing a mask.

A Bangkok Post editorial on March 15 criticized Anutin for “making racist comments about Westerners”, who currently make the bulk of tourists in the country after Chinese travellers retreated in February when the disease first erupted in Wuhan.

The English language newspaper later published a cheeky letter to the editor by a writer named David Amaan who suggested Anutin “needs to be dealt with appropriately, starting with a strong disinfectant administered orally, followed by an enema.”

Tourists and expatriates have since expressed fear that the health minister’s anti-Western messaging could spark violent racial attacks against them in the street.

“It might go a bit hard core in coming days, especially the blame game against Europeans,” said a worried German writer living in Bangkok.

A Muay Thai training club’s manager told Bangkok’s Thisrupt news, “For now, we are not allowing any foreigners to come to the gym to workout.

“We don’t know who they are, where they have been, or who their friends are. The foreigners could have been in contact with other foreigners, who have been to other places that they don’t know of,” the Thai manager said.

Many Thai boxing gyms are popular with Westerners and other foreigners, who also compete in prize fights against Thais at public venues.

Volunteers use disinfectant to clean Wat Traimit temple in Bangkok on March 18, 2020, amid concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

The racial targeting comes amid a worsening shortage of face masks in this Southeast Asian nation.

The Thai Pharmacies Association’s 3,000 pharmacies “have run out of face masks and hand sanitizers since last month, and have not been able to place orders,” the association’s advisor Theparak Surathanond said.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha transferred Internal Trade Department chief Whichai Phochanakjj on March 15 to investigate the mask scarcity.

Whichai’s department was allegedly linked to exports of a large number of face masks during January and February, officials said.

The sudden rise of anti-Caucasian racism follows on an earlier surge of anti-China sentiment when the coronavirus first appeared in Thailand in January this year. Then, though, Thai officials bid to repress rather than stoke the xenophonia.

In Thailand’s second-largest city, Chiang Mai police told a Thai restaurant owner in February to remove a sign in front of her eatery which said in English: “We apologize we are not accepting CHINESE customers. Thank you.”

Tourist police told the restaurant owner that her sign could “affect national security,” according to Thailand’s Khao Sod English news site. Police instead suggested she could rewrite her sign to say politely but deceptively “We ran out of food” in Chinese.

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

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