Informal chat with member of national Covid-19 response team

Thailand’s Covid-19 response team is a success story. Meet one of the people who shaped how Thais dealt with the pandemic.

By | Fri 12 Jun 2020

One of Citylife’s staff met a member of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), which has been set up to advise and guide the government’s response to this pandemic.

He was not on official business and therefore did not have permission to give this interview. He has requested anonymity but allowed us to record our informal chat over dinner.

Citylife: Please tell us about what you do.

Official: I am working in planning and information. The key success of planning is all about cooperation on a national level. How to communicate with the entire country and have people willing and wanting to understand and to help us solve the problem.

So we had to come up with a way to efficiently and effectively disseminate information, what we call strategic communication.

We were first contacted by the secretariat of the Office of the National Security Council asking us to work on strategic communication to report directly to the Prime Minister’s office. Immediately we began to work on a plan. After two weeks we came up with a first plan. What became very obvious immediately was that the only way to implement the plan was if the public supported it. We therefore decided to come up with a separate strategic communications department, which is what I have been working on ever since. The past month I have moved away from this and am working with the airfoce on setting up state quarantines.

Citylife: When did you first hear about the coronavirus?

Official: I was following the news, like everyone else when it first came out of China. I never thought that I would become so involved. The minute we proposed our plan to the PM, he implemented the state of emergency. The massive task at the beginning was to combine and make sense of all the state tools, of which there were so many. We have numerous centres to receive complaints and comments from the public, we had various channels from various ministries and departments, we had different platforms for information. So we had to immediately figure out how to craft and totally focus on a key message to the public, something that would reach every age group, every sector of society in a short time. I cannot be more proud at how everyone came together at that time. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission immediately got all television channels, radio stations and major media onboard, their voices broadcasting the urgency of following government guidelines and providing crucial health and safety information. Initially this was only broadcast on NBT, but soon was being broadcast on all channels every quarter of an hour. The key message sunk in quickly. We got the highly respected Dr. Taweesilp Visanuyothin, to become spokesman, and ‘influencer’, for the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, a move lauded by the public, as it showed medical authority, not political.

As to the skies, we set a wall up to filter out those not fit to fly. We built a very high and hard to attain wall, basically requiring a two hundred-thousand-baht health insurance. This was designed to make people think really hard about coming here; we only wanted people who really needed to come. This was to protect 65 million people living here in Thailand. As to Thais living abroad, who number in the millions too, they all want to come home to their mums, dad, children, family. We want to bring them all home. But the state quarantine facilities are limited and they are necessary to filter out the virus. So again it was up to the communications strategy team to really try to explain all these issues to the public. The slogan asking Thais not to leave one another behind was also aimed at Thais abroad, asking them to please bear with us while we ensure safety for everyone. For Thais living here, all we ask were to wear masks, to social distance, to wash their hands and to maintain all safety protocols we have been asking. Today the Thai Chana platform which is the app for checking into various venues, is being widely used by all. Thais know the difference between politics and community. This is not about politics, but about the spirit of the people. The pandemic is party-free, politics free, social status-free…and it has been abundantly clear that this pandemic has brought Thai people together rather than wedge us apart.

Citylife: What were the various strategies you came up with?

Official: Dr. Taweesilp was immediately asked to host daily public briefings to the nation, every morning at 11.30am. Every day he would have an 8.30am meeting at the Public Health Office then visit the Covid-19 situation command centre to get fully up to date before facing the public and the press. At 9.30 he would join our strategic communications team which would discuss ‘social listening’ issues, or issues and concerns brought up by the public. Every day, if needed, we would craft a new key message to be disseminated. There was a lot of nuance between balancing economy and the need to slowly open up and get back to normal, and safety. Once we crafted our key message and provided some basic tools, then an army of people in different areas would take that message and fine tune it to reach different demographics: A YouTube expert will take it to that channel, another team would reshape the message for little children, another yet would be targeted at the international community, or Thais abroad. I think that most Thais have noticed that pollution has dropped in recent months, that crime has been reduced, that traffic is better. We are also having these conversations at the same time and sending various messages out which we hope will get people to think that everything is connected and that the answer to it all is Thais helping Thais. If we can come together and understand these big important issues together then we can solve them together. We have been running for so long. Now that we have stopped we are learning to take steps together. Each step can be beautiful if we walk forward together.

As to indicators, we simply followed the analysis of the medical team. And we reported truthfully. When people began to see the numbers drop, it became a shared achievement. With 90% of the population understanding and supporting us, it means that what we are doing is effective.

Don’t forget the entire world only learnt about the coronavirus five months or so ago. No one really knew; not doctors, not governments. Other governments are no more ahead than us in knowing how to deal with this situation. For me the strategy was always to perfect the communication with the public. Once the public understands and supports then we can walk forward.

And of course we make mistakes too. At one point the medical team discussed the slight increase in cases of suicide over the Covid period and economic hardship. This was taken by many people out of context and blown out of proportion into a big issue. We looked at the numbers and they were a slight

increase only. So we have to work with the medical team to make sure their messages do not get distorted.

Citylife: Many of our expat readers are stuck abroad and unable to return anytime soon. What assurances can you give them as to when they can come home?

Official: Yes, some expats have jobs here, have businesses, many have families. We are very aware of their plight and have come up with a working plan. Their lives are here; they are essentially Thai. Our plan is to stagger their return, because after all the safety of 65 million must come first. So we will bring back our Thais who are abroad first, and then the expats will begin to come back.

The government is looking at the big picture. We are all learning as we go. Society is shifting. We don’t penalise people for not wearing masks, but look, everyone is wearing one. Society is readjusting itself, finding a new direction. Even if it takes five years to recover, I think that we have all learnt that we have to innovate, keep developing, move forward. Thailand has so much going for it; our healthcare is one of the best in the world, our attractions are spectacular and our people adaptable. We will be fine. This is going to create opportunities.