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Thailand faces growing epidemic ahead of New Year’s travels

BANGKOK (AP) – Authorities in Thailand struggled to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak on Friday just days before Songkran’s traditional New Year’s holiday in the country, when millions of people travel across the country.

Health officials reported 559 new infections nationwide on Friday, after an increase of 405 new cases and 334 new cases the previous two days. Authorities responded by ordering entertainment venues in 41 provinces to close for two weeks starting Saturday, while governors in some provinces impose restrictions on travelers from elsewhere.

Such daily increases in new infections are rare in Thailand, which has weathered the coronavirus pandemic much better than many countries thanks to measures including strict border controls that have decimated the country’s lucrative tourism industry. Thailand has also occasionally experienced everything from curfews and alcohol bans to school, shopping mall and restaurant closures.

Travelers and businesses were hoping this year’s Songkran holiday could go without a spike in infections. The holiday was canceled last year to slow the spread of the disease, as the country was experiencing its first major outbreak.

The national government has so far refused to issue general travel restrictions this year, although provincial authorities are allowed to set quarantine rules for people coming from high-risk areas such as Bangkok. Several provinces have done so, questioning the travel plans of many people.

The current outbreak is the largest the country has seen since December, centered on a fresh produce market that employs a number of migrant workers from Myanmar. This time around, however, the outbreak has been attributed to a number of bars and nightlife spots in the heart of Bangkok, many of which are popular with the rich and powerful. Cases are now on the rise in at least 20 provinces, with authorities saying some of those infected had a more contagious variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

The outbreak – which has infected at least one Cabinet minister and forced a number of others into self-quarantine – is growing criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government and its handling of the pandemic. While Thailand has only recorded 30,869 infections and 96 deaths since the start of the pandemic, critics say the government has not done enough on immunization or support for people whose livelihoods have been reduced. wiped out by the pandemic.

Thailand has vaccinated far less than 1% of its 69 million population and has a relatively limited supply of Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines. While there have been a few high-profile vaccination events – including the most recent vaccinations for workers at now-closed entertainment venues in areas affected by the latest outbreak – there is still no specific timeline for know when the general public can get vaccinated.

The government’s response to the latest outbreak has so far focused on closures of nightlife spots. Earlier this week, Bangkok city officials ordered the closure of all nightclubs in three affected neighborhoods. The country’s central authority which manages the coronavirus situation extended this Friday to bars, nightclubs and karaoke lounges in 41 provinces.

Authorities in Bangkok set up mass testing sites in some of the affected neighborhoods, drawing large crowds of people who often had to queue for hours. Efforts to detect possible infections have been complicated now that a number of Bangkok hospitals have said they are suspending COVID-19 testing due to shortages of chemicals needed to process the tests.

The government has ordered preparations to set up field hospitals to accommodate any increase in patient numbers and said vacant rooms in Bangkok hotels could also be converted to accommodate infected people if the number continues to rise. .

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