Bangkok nightlife clusters expose Thailand's virus stumbles

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FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2021, file photo, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha holds samples of Sinovac vaccine during a ceremony to mark the arrival of 200,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine shipment at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Prayuth was not particularly lauded for his leadership last year against the coronavirus, but for much of 2020 Thailand fought the disease to a standstill, with low infection and death rates envied by more developed countries. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

BANGKOK – When Thailand's transport minister was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, it was Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who got a headache.

Prayuth was not particularly lauded for his leadership last year against the coronavirus, but for much of 2020 Thailand fought the disease to a standstill, with low infection and death rates envied by more developed countries.

Now, an outbreak at nightspots in the capital Bangkok has sent new infections surging, suggesting the country may have been lulled into a false sense of security before mass vaccinations begin.

On Wednesday, 1,335 new cases were confirmed, taking the total to 35,910, with 97 deaths. While that is much better than most other countries, Thailand's cases in the first three months of this year were triple what the country had all of last year and its daily numbers are rising fast.

The new outbreak has spread among mostly young, affluent and mobile Thais, and some of the newly infected had the more contagious variant first identified in the U.K.

The government says Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob caught the virus from an aide who patronized some of the infectious nightspots, including a club described by Thai media as a glorified strip joint that was blatantly ignoring social distancing precautions. That has added to widespread skepticism over the government's handling of the latest crisis.

Thailand only recently began easing strict border controls that for the past year have kept out most travelers, especially all-important tourists whose spending supports millions of jobs. The restrictions have included mandatory testing and 14-day quarantines for almost all arrivals.

Officials had appeared reluctant to impose sweeping restrictions like curfews, bans on serving alcohol and closures of bars, parks and shopping malls that were the rule this time last year, when Songkran Thai New Year holidays were cancelled.