The COVID-19 pandemic has become an ongoing global case study of unprecedented circumstances and scale that compels our generation to rethink what we constitute as crisis preparedness. It underscores our true priorities in rare situations where normal social activities are rendered a threat to public health, and public welfare is compromised because governments are unable to physically reach their citizens to deliver assistance. Such epiphanies are now evident in government structures that have recalibrated and overhauled their public disaster response systems to suit circumstances under a new normal. This pandemic is the first of its kind and poses a tremendous challenge for any state.
Today, one year after Thailand had activated its response to the pandemic in early 2020, we take a look back at how Thailand managed its worldwide repatriation operation to bring Thai nationals stranded overseas back home while defying the risks of contracting the virus as well challenges due to travel restrictions.
Such missions are usually taken for granted because the actions behind the scenes are rarely disclosed. Thailand’s case in point, however, deserves praise as a successful model in redirecting state capacity to address the plight of its citizens abroad. It demonstrates a level of preparedness and ingenuity among Thailand’s very small diplomatic troupe, and the work they jointly achieved worldwide, against a backdrop of one of the most challenging circumstances in the history of pandemics.
Key to this success lies in Thailand’s preparedness system, and the keen vision and ability of its chiefs of missions, both in Bangkok and abroad, to recognise a foreign crisis as early as possible.
The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a built-in “Rapid Response Center” or the RRC that addresses that very notion. The Consular Affairs Department is trained to address the needs of Thais caught up in any crisis on foreign soil that can trigger the operations of the RRC. In the event of such disruptions, experts from various agencies will be summoned to the RRC in Bangkok, to put together the most viably effective action plan to save Thai nationals residing abroad. As Wuhan fell into lockdown in January 2020 during the early outbreak of COVID-19, the RRC was called to action by a few Thais who were stranded in China. The efforts of the RRC in this mission would lead to the birth of the extensive mandatory quarantine system that Thailand has continued to apply today. This system has been able to effectively keep the coronavirus transmitted by incoming international travelers at bay.
Mr. Chatri Arjchananun, the former Director General to the Department of Consular Affairs who helped pioneer this quarantine system, details in an interview, his department’s journey towards constructing the state quarantine system for international arrivals. “We have always been the main agency dealing with any sort of repatriation missions in the past. So of course, it should be up to us to initiate this policy.”
Mr. Chatri’s “mission impossible” began with the first repatriation mission that brought home 138 Thais caught in the Wuhan lockdown on February 4th 2020. At that time, diplomats identified the first Wuhan operation as a “normal crisis.” Nevertheless, this mission allowed medical experts to kick start research on how to set up risk zoning assessment for aircrafts returning to Thailand. “The doctors who flew to Wuhan with us were working on the very risky basis of experimenting with a new virus the world did not even understand. Not knowing the nature of the virus, they took all possible precautions they could think of. They engaged in conversations with AirAsia, the airline who volunteered to help with the repatriation mission, to assess air flow in the aircraft, how the air currents can carry particles across the plane, and with that, they placed potentially infected passengers at the back, and uninfected passengers at the front.” The well-thought out procedures functioned well. This same assessment has now been re-adapted and used to set up quarantine facilities with partner hotels. At the same time, medical personnel and government officials, including diplomats, had to educate and prepare themselves. Attention to all details is vital in order to minimize the risk of contamination and infection.
Operation Wuhan served as a steep learning curve as well as a wake-up call for Thailand to swiftly mobilize its state capacity for the anticipated worldwide lockdown crisis that followed in a matter of months.
As Thai government agencies began modeling new quarantine facilities after the success of the prototype facilities at a naval base in Sattahip (a seaside district in the province of Chonburi, about 175 kilometres east from Bangkok), Thai Embassies abroad were at the same time, receiving an unprecedented surge of requests for aid. On top of the fact that many governments had started lockdown measures and banning incoming flights from high-risk territories and countries due to the pandemic outbreak, public health officials had required all Thais to present a fit-to-fly health certificate as well as an Embassy letter for travel approval. Soon diplomatic missions worked long hours to issue these documents, racing against time, while walking each and every person through the documentation process.
The worsening conditions of the pandemic triggered a mass movement of Thais who were urged to return home in March 2020. Many non-Thais also started to request to travel to Thailand due to essential reasons. From then on, throughout the year 2020 until today, a total of over 214,000 Thais have been repatriated back to Thailand from overseas, through the hard work of about only 600 Thai diplomats around the world. Not only that, but these same diplomats have also assisted around 129,000 non-Thais to travel to Thailand within the same time span. This is an average of 4-6 flights per day for 365 days non-stop. Doing the math, this is quite impressive.
Since travel was restricted, this meant that most Thais had to wait their turn before seats could be made available to return home. Thai diplomatic missions around the globe had to work around the clock to make sure that during that wait, every Thai was being properly looked after. This includes supplying them with necessity items (face masks, medicine, food stuff etc.), providing medical advice as well as moral support, giving advice on documentation, arranging transportation, and of course arranging flights to return home safely. There were even volunteer doctors who helped provide around the clock medical advice to Thai people living abroad who did not have access to medical care in far away areas. This was done via mobile applications.
Back in Bangkok, consular officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters are still moving above and beyond to meet public expectations as well as continuing their regular functions. “Our staff are exhausted, we have converted our department into the repatriation warehouse where our civil servants have voluntarily sacrificed their holidays and evenings to bring people home,” says Mr. Chatri.
Throughout the pandemic, diplomats have shown valor and the highest perseverance to their task of repatriating citizens regardless of how abnormal circumstances may be. As Thailand moves forward in the new phase of vaccine rollout, Thais must not forget that the normality we afforded in 2020 was enabled by these unsung heroes, these civil servants and their families who altruistically sacrificed their time, their well-being, and even their own lives to make this possible for us.
Room for Improvement
As a result of adapting former systems of crisis response to the needs of the pandemic, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs was able to visualize a clearer picture of the Thai diaspora living outside of Thailand which amounts to an estimate of 1.5 million people. “We have now created a centralized registration system where we track every request for a Certificate of Entry from the Consular Affairs Department,” says Mr. Chatri. “Data about foreign nationals is hard to collect for any government, but this pandemic has instead helped my department find many scattered Thai populations living in remote places of the world.” In the event of any crisis or natural disaster, the registration database is a vital tool that helps diplomats extend aid to the right locations. The analysis that could be drawn before a crisis can reduce the unnecessary expenditure of limited time and resources to locate unregistered citizens. Lessons learned throughout this year of pandemic can only make these diplomats better prepared and equipped to save lives in the event of any new disruptions.
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