Richard Lipez: Thailand plagued by virus fake news

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BANGKOK — In January a friend in New Hampshire who is a health care professional emailed Joe Wheaton and me in Thailand and offered to send us some medical face masks. She had read about the Chinese coronavirus spreading and a reported shortage of masks in the region. I emailed her back and said we would be happy to accept the masks, but only if she delivered them herself and then we all went out for a bowl of tam yam goong.

The World Health Organization says these masks — the flimsy ones and even the more sophisticated devices — don't offer much protection. It's the people who are infected who need to wear them. That opinion didn't stop the Thai Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, from indulging in some misguided street theater at a Bangkok Skytrain station recently. He passed out masks to passers-by, and when some Western tourists said no thanks, the minister had a little tantrum and declared that tourists who refuse to wear masks should be kicked out of the country. A day later, perhaps having been reminded by someone with more seniority than he that 11 percent of Thailand's GNP is dependent on foreign visitors, the minister apologized.

While the epidemic has reached truly catastrophic proportions in China, Thailand has been lucky. It's had only 34 cases, almost all of them involving victims who had been in virus ground zero, the area around Wuhan, China, or who had had close contact with those infected in China.

Misinformation about the virus, however, a lot of it daffy, is a danger in East Asia second only to the virus itself in its seriousness. Fortunately, a branch of the Thai national government more enlightened than the Health Ministry is doing its best to dispel fears that a viral Armageddon is near — or is already here and it's being covered up.


Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta has set up an Anti-fake-news Center, which has been trying to knock down rumors spread mainly on social media. One story said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had been stricken with the virus while inspecting an airport screening station. (Most flights from China have been cancelled, but for those remaining, incoming passengers are checked before leaving the airport.)

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A doctored video supposedly showing a Chinese man collapsing went viral. In January a story was careening around the internet that there were 112,000 cases of the virus in Central China. The actual number at the time was 80.

Minister Buddhipongse has pointed out that "when it comes to health, people will believe and share anything." The conspiracy-minded are spreading stories that the virus was a bioweapon created in a lab. Researchers say the virus almost certainly originated in a Wuhan wildlife market with a small mammal that had been infected by a bat. The racier theory making the rounds here is that the Chinese eat bat soup.

The Anti-fake-news Center has been kept busy, too, debunking quack "cures" for the virus. No, drinking bleach won't do it, the experts say. Nor will eating onions, as an official in neighboring Myanmar (formerly Burma) suggested. A senior Buddhist monk in Myanmar also maintained that the virus could be warded off by placing seven ground peppercorns on the tongue.     

Apart from the jangled nerves — on the subway platform the other day there were so many people wearing masks they looked as if they were on their way to rob a bank — the biggest effect of the virus on Thailand is economic. Nearly 30 percent of Thailand's tourism business is from Chinese visitors, and now Westerners and other Asians have been scared off, too. Hotels and restaurants are laying off staff. Joe was in the amulet market recently, where the sale of good-luck charms to tourists is usually booming, and the place was practically deserted. Vendors were despondent.

Still, there are those who are finding a way in these tense times to make a buck. In the middle of my Washington Post online feed one day, up popped a local ad for Oxybreathpro, a fancy face mask that usually retails for $99 but I could purchase for a mere $49 by employing my "50 percent discount code." I saw a woman wearing one of these Darth Vader-like contraptions recently. She was also wearing sun glasses, and she looked like a creature in one of those old sci-fi movies about giant marauding ants. I hope she remembered to use her 50 percent discount code.

Reading dire news reports about the virus, my cousin in California has been wondering whether to cancel her planned trip to Thailand in March. I asked a British friend who has lived here for 30 years for advice. He replied, "In March she's more likely to die from the heat than the virus." All the current evidence — it's an abnormally high 94 or 95 every day now— says that's no fake news.

Richard Lipez is a Becket writer and a member of the Eagle Advisory Board.


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