A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) performs a Covid-19 nasal swab test on December 20 after almost 700 new cases of the infection were found in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand. Photo: Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Is the recent revelation of the largest daily number of Covid-19 infections in Thailand a full-blown outbreak, or a chance discovery of a malady that has been there for quite some time?

That is the key question after more than 700 people living and working around a shrimp market in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon, a province southwest of the capital Bangkok, were found over the weekend to be Covid-19 positive.

Either way, migrant workers, most of them from Myanmar, are at the center of the ruckus with cases being discovered even in Bangkok, from where people travel to Mahachai to buy shrimps and other seafood. That will only make their already precarious and marginalized situation in Thailand even more treacherous.

Contrary to what some Thai newspapers have reported, this is not likely something they brought with them from Myanmar, where authorities have struggled to contain a spreading outbreak. There are rising concerns that Thai authorities may lurch to impose a new national lockdown, including over Bangkok, if numbers continue to climb in the days ahead.

Thailand’s land borders with all its neighbors have been closed since March and the migrant workers in Mahachai went there long before any Covid-19 cases were discovered first in Wuhan, China and then in the rest of the region and the wider world.

Since the first cases were discovered in Samut Sakhon in mid-December, Thailand’s highly efficient health authorities have carried out massive testing in the affected area and placed it under at least a partial lockdown.

Since nearly all of those who have tested positive for the virus are asymptomatic or have very mild signs of the disease, it would have been hard to discover it earlier.

Thai medical officials collect a nose swab sample to test for the Covid-19 at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon after some cases of local infections were detected and linked to a vendor at the market, December 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor

But the discovery of cases fits a pattern that has also been seen in many European capitals: migrants, newly arrived refugees and otherwise dispossessed people who live closely-packed together in ghetto-like conditions are among those hardest-hit by the pandemic.

In those communities, where health services are likewise inadequate, it doesn’t take more than the arrival of a few infected people for any disease to spread like wildfire and then be out of control.

While many Thais have gone to work in Europe, Taiwan, Israel, South Korea and other foreign countries, even larger numbers of workers from Thailand’s impoverished neighbors have come to the kingdom to look for jobs.

The exact number is not known but believed to be in the range of 4-5 million, the vast majority of whom are from neighboring Myanmar. They dominate the labor force in Mahachai’s seafood processing plants as well as on fishing boats off Thailand’s coasts and in the tourism industry at favorite beach destinations for foreign travelers such as Koh Samui and Phuket.

The factories in and around the border town of Mae Sot have been a constant magnet for migrant workers and in the northern city of Chiang Mai most construction laborers are ethnic Shan from Myanmar, as are many farmworkers in the province and nearby Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.

Thousands of migrant workers returned to Myanmar when the Covid-19 crisis hit Thailand in the beginning of the year. That — coupled with thousands more returning from China — is most likely the origin of the now fast spread of the disease in their home country.

As of December 20, Myanmar had 113,082 known infections and 2,443 deaths, according to official statistics. But because testing is carried out almost exclusively in urban areas in central Myanmar, those figures are likely only the tip of the iceberg of the true number of cases, according to regional health experts.

Myanmar does not have the means to carry out nationwide testing, tracking and treatment of its entire population. It has remained an almost exclusively domestic problem for Myanmar.

People line up to have their temperatures taken as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus at the Ministry of Transport at the border crossing over the second Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot in Tak province on October 29, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwarnrumpha

The first spread of the disease to any neighboring country occurred when two migrant workers from Myanmar tested positive in the Chinese border town of Ruili in September, leading to the testing of some 200,000 people in that area, a local lockdown and border closure.

In December, a group of about 50 Thai women who had worked in an entertainment center in Tachilek near Thailand’s northern border, tested positive when they were apprehended after most of them had crossed the border illegally without going into mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals into the kingdom.

That “outbreak” caused a near-panic in northern Thailand when it was discovered that some of the returned had visited shopping malls and movie theaters in Chiang Mai and elsewhere.

What should be seen as the outcome of years-long neglect of the welfare of the migrant workers, businesses in Samut Sakhon are already hurting badly from the Covid-19 publicity.

Amphai Harnkraiwilai, chairwoman of the provincial chamber of commerce, was quoted in the local Bangkok Post of December 21 as saying that losses caused by the market’s closure already amount to a billion Thai baht, or US$33.4 million, a day. It’s not only the seafood industry that has been badly affected.

Related businesses and services have also had to close down, a local festival had to be canceled and schools have suspended their classes.

People queue to get tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon, after some cases of local infections were detected, December 19, 2020. Image: AFP/Jack Taylor

More gravely, there is also the possibility of a backlash against Myanmar migrant workers who have remained in Thailand after the initial Covid-driven exodus earlier this year.

It seems clear that the migrants caught the disease in Thailand and did not bring it with them from Myanmar, but rational thinking is a scarce commodity in times of crisis — and nothing as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic has been experienced across the globe in recent memory.

The problem for Thailand is that it needs migrant workers who work in industries as diverse as fishing to construction, to revive its Covid-hit economy. On the other hand, one positive upshot of Thailand’s latest Covid-19 scare is that migrant workers are being tested and, if necessary, can get the treatment they need.