Santa Claus and his not-so-little helpers in Thailand face a Christmas like no other. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

In key cities in Thailand, the holiday feeling was all over. Christmas trees and holiday trimmings were set up. The cities were lit up, encouraging a holiday mood.

After all, the pandemic’s end was almost in sight. Those known to have Covid-19 were already in state quarantine and were mostly from abroad.

Back on June 27, no local cases were found. The next month, on July 1, Thailand ended its three-month lockdown. We were finally on our way to the “new normal.” Classes had resumed. Malls opened. The tourism industry, although catering to local tourists only, were bouncing back.

Measures were taken to ensure our safety. The Thai government endorsed the use of Mor Chana and Thai Chana Apps that developed a Covid-19 QR code which is scanned on a phone to track the time of entrance and exit in a public venue, like shops, cinemas, restaurants and bus stations.

Manual recording was also done if one chose not to use the apps. Temperature checks and hand sanitizers were put in place. People wore masks everywhere.

In November, Thailand was hailed by World Health Organization (WHO) director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for containing the spread of the virus even without a vaccine. Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction.

But the Grinch was just around the corner – he never left – and was waiting for the right time to spoil everyone’s hope. Everything was planned – revelries, vacations, get-togethers, and more. Hotel bookings were done. Venues were reserved for concerts and countdowns. We were so tired of 2020. We wanted to move on to the promise of a new normal.

The Grinch is back

On December 8, we woke to the news of a Covid-19 local transmission in Chiang Rai, from a Thai woman who sneaked across the Thai-Myanmar border in Chiang Rai. There were some local infections, but they were contained. The government assured us that everything was under control. It was not the dreaded second wave.

It was a domino effect.

On December 11, a wholesale shrimp vendor in Talad Klang Kung, the central shrimp market in Samut Sakhon, tested positive for Covid-19.

Samut Sakhon is a coastal town in the Gulf of Thailand and is only 37.5 kilometers from Bangkok. It has a huge wet market known for its seafood. Prior to Covid-19, the seafood industry and other related businesses in Samut Sakhon had estimated earnings of 400-500 million baht a day (US$13.2 million to $16.5 million).

It is also home to the largest Burmese migrant worker population in Thailand. The migrants are employed in the seafood industry as well as various factories and businesses.

In only a matter of days, many tested positive among the migrant workers in the area. The number of infections among migrant workers in Samut Sakhon and nearby areas topped 1,000 and was expected to rise.

On December 18, Samut Sakhon was put into lockdown until January 4. Neighboring provinces declared a lockdown starting December 22. Classes in some schools are being done online and many people working in Samut Sakhon are now back to work-from-home-schemes.

Meanwhile, the vendors relying on foot traffic and local tourists are back to zero. Infections were not only detected in Samut Sakhon, but had spread to at least 7 provinces in Thailand, and most were traced to the shrimp market.

‘Remin vigilant’

Dormitories for migrant workers in the area have been quarantined, similar to the strategy in Singapore when an outbreak happened in the island nation in August.

On December 22, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-0cha urged the country to remain vigilant because people had been getting lax. He also said the new strain found in the migrant workers were due to illegal migrants crossing the border to find work in Thailand.

He promised to prosecute “those networks that bring illegal immigrants into the country, they must be prosecuted without any leniency,” according to the Thai Enquirer website.

In addition to more than 1,000 cases originating in Samut Sakhon, Covid-19 cases in Thailand stand at 5,716, with 4,078 recoveries and 60 deaths. Despite the assurances of the government that there is no second-wave, uncertainty hangs heavily in the air.

It seems that 2020 was just a dress-rehearsal for 2021. We have to prepare for the worst, but expect the best.

Despite the promise of a vaccine, the Grinch will always be there in the form of Sars-CoV-2. It already destroyed our dreams, families and the world’s economies.

Still, let’s put on the light, hoping it will guide us towards a better future.

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.