A man has his temperature 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 Suwanrumpha

CHIANG MAI – Sparsely visited shopping malls, flight and hotel cancellations and stricter controls at entertainment centers — such is the new normal in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai after about 50 Thais working across the border in Tachilek, Myanmar were found to be Covid-19 carriers after illegally returning across the closed border.

Even if almost no foreign visitors have made it to Chiang Mai since March this year, it was hoped that a government-supported spike in domestic tourism would compensate for at least some of the losses, especially this month as December is when Bangkokians and others travel to experience the northern region’s comparatively exotic cold weather.

Instead, hotels and guest houses have received nearly 2,000 cancellations and, according to the Thai Hotels Association, the occupancy rate at Chiang Mai’s hotels now hovers around 60% compared to 90% a year ago.

It may be argued that the travelers as well as local authorities have overreacted. The total number of people in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai who have been tested Covid-19 positive remains in the low hundreds, extremely low by any international standard.

A mask-wearing Thai student stands in a queue waiting for a Covid-19 monitoring test. Image: Facebook

But, as the recent case of those who crossed back into Thailand illegally, it is the proximity to Myanmar and the long and porous border that is causing new panic and fear of a potential, bigger wave of infections.

Nearly all of the Thais infected in Myanmar seem to have worked at the 1G1-7 Hotel and entertainment complex, a huge establishment that used to employ hundreds of Thais. The owners are widely reported to be shady Chinese investors whose businesses dominate the economy of this remote and virtually lawless corner of Myanmar.

That, in turn, highlights an even bigger problem: the sad state of Myanmar’s health services, which have not yet recovered from the neglect hospitals and clinics for civilians have suffered since the country fell under military rule in 1962.

As of December 10, Myanmar had confirmed 104,487 Covid-19 infections and 2,201 deaths — compared with 4,180 infections and 60 deaths in Thailand. But a closer look at official statistics from Myanmar’s health authorities reveals an even grimmer picture.

The region around the commercial capital Yangon has recorded 73,521 infections and 1,936 deaths, followed by 8,390 infections and 58 deaths in the region around the second city Mandalay and 6,108 infections and 11 deaths in Bago, another region in central Myanmar. After that, the numbers decline rapidly, which reflects the fact that tracking and testing is confined to major urban centers.

Volunteers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) suits lower into a grave the body of a person suspected of dying from the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cemetery, in Yangon, October 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Ye Aung Thu

If official figures are to be believed in Shan state, a region of 155,801 square kilometers and 5.8 million people, it has had only 562 infections and two deaths. Kayah state, another ethnic minority area, has had only 24 infections and no deaths. Kachin state has had 334 infections and also no deaths while Chin state has seen 139 infections and one death.

A breakdown of Shan state’s cases shows that “East Shan” — where Tachilek is located — has had only 116 infections and no recorded deaths. Even so, nearly all of those who have sneaked across the border into Thailand have tested positive once back home in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Some of them traveled on to Phayao, Bangkok, Phichit, Ratchaburi and Singburi — and tested positive there.

The Thai government has claimed the north’s outbreak has been contained But it is no wonder that authorities are increasing their surveillance along the border with Myanmar. Those who returned from Tachilek were mostly female and were easy to detect as some of them even made the mistake of posting pictures on social media of themselves trekking over the border mountains.

But well-established smuggling networks facilitate other cross-border movements of stranded Thais wanting to return home, North Korean refugees and Chinese wheeler-dealers who run petty businesses in northern Thailand.

It is not only Myanmar’s Shan state that threatens Thailand’s so far successful Covid-19 containment. In the south, the Thai Navy has increased patrols of the narrow waters that separate Phuket and Ranong provinces from 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

In the east, the Mekong River forms most of the border with Laos and border security there is even laxer. Thai authorities are also reportedly worried about an outbreak in neighboring Cambodia, which also shares an extremely porous border with Thailand.

All of these are old routes that were once used by thousands of mostly young people who came to Thailand to look for work. Now, the absence of work in Myanmar and the rapid spread of infections there has caused another wave: so-called health refugees returning home, or Myanmar citizens who do not believe they can get adequate testing and if infected treatment in their own country.

In national elections in November in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a comfortable victory — and pledged to tackle the health crisis. But it’s not clear how and with what means in a country that is still desperately poor.

A December report from the US-based Brookings Institution lists a number of obvious weaknesses: inadequate testing capacity, an unprepared health system, income and food shortages caused by the crisis, and domestic unrest which includes a bloody civil war in several frontier areas.

According to Brookings, Myanmar stood out in the region as least prepared to tackle any major health crisis and that was even before Covid-19 started its devastating spread in the country. Myanmar had only 6.7 physicians per 10,000 people in 2018, well below the global average of 15.6, and just 10.4 hospital beds per 10,000 people.

Medical staff take a swab sample from a woman to test for the Covid-19 novel coronavirus at a clinic in Insein, Yangon on September 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Ye Aung Thu

In March 2020, Myanmar reported 0.71 intensive care unit beds and an abysmally low 0.46 ventilators per 100,000 people, the Brookings research said. Since then, the government has boosted its so-called surge capacity by constructing makeshift hospitals, quarantine centers, and clinics, and procuring ventilators and securing funds for intensive care units. “But these efforts are compromised by the scarcity of medical staff,” Brookings concluded.

The return of Thai female hospitality workers from Tachilek and the effect it has had on the local economy in northern Thailand has put a new spotlight on Myanmar’s spreading but still underreported health crisis.

The infected returnees reflect only the tip of a problem that the Thais now must contend with: a neighbor that lags not only decades behind Thailand in social development and health care infrastructure but also in its control of borderlands will civil war still simmers and organized crime groups freely roam.