Thailand to test thousands after shirmp market COVID-19 outbreak

Thailand on Sunday began testing tens of thousands of people for coronavirus and extended curbs on movement, a day after locking down a province following the country’s worst outbreak yet.
December 21, 2020 | 10:44
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People queue to get tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon on December 19, 2020 after some cases of local infections were detected and linked to a vendor at the market. (Photo: AFP)

People queue to get tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon on December 19, 2020 after some cases of local infections were detected and linked to a vendor at the market. (Photo: AFP)

The outbreak began at a shrimp market in Samut Sakhon, a province southwest of Bangkok and a center of the seafood industry that is home to thousands of migrant workers, according to Reuters.

Four cases were reported there on Friday and that number had jumped to 689 by Sunday, the public health ministry said. Thailand had previously kept the epidemic in check, recording little more than 5,000 COVID-19 cases.

"We have announced the shrimp market is a severe disease control area," provincial governor Veerasak Vijitsaengsri the ministry’s permanent secretary was quoted by AFP.

Today is just the first stage,” Kiattiphum Wongrajit told a news conference. “Further results will show a lot more infections.”

"The total number is 548 and 90 percent (of cases) have no sign of sickness and most of them are foreign workers," said Opas Kankavinwong, director-general of the Disease Control Department. The figures were counted until Saturday.

Wongrajit said up to 40,000 people would be tested in Samut Sakhon and nearby provinces, with over 10,000 tests to be conducted by Wednesday.

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Thailand is grappling with the virus (Photo: AFP)

Migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, lined up for testing on Sunday, along with some Thais. Most cases identified so far have been asymptomatic, health officials said.

"The population in Mahachai is roughly 70 percent Thai and 30 percent migrant workers, which means the source of the virus spreading could come from migrant workers, particularly Myanmar workers," Moe Kyaw Thu from the Raks Thai Foundation said.

Barbed wire surrounded the market on Sunday as authorities in Bangkok ordered all schools in three districts in the capital that have borders with Samut Sakhon, 45 km (30 miles) away by road, to close until Jan. 4.

The province is due to stay under lockdown and nighttime curfew until Jan. 3, and Kiattiphum said the ministry expected to bring the situation under control in two to four weeks.

Thailand, the first country outside China to report COVID-19 cases, has so far reported just 60 deaths from coronavirus among its 70 million population, fewer than any country as big except for Vietnam.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha posted on his Facebook account: “We will have to cut the epidemic cycle quickly. We already have experience in handling it.”

Authorities in Bangkok also called on people to step up preventive measures by avoiding gatherings, while entertainment venues and restaurants must observe social distancing.

Organizers of New Year celebrations were told to seek official permission to go ahead, while companies were urged to get staff to work from home if possible.

Neighboring Cambodia meanwhile toughened requirements for people entering the country from Thailand.

Somsak Paneetatyasai, president of the Thai Shrimp Association, said the outbreak was bad news for shrimp exports, up to 30% of which come from Samut Sakhon. Thailand is one of the world’s 10 biggest shrimp exporters.

The surge in coronavirus cases comes as Thailand attempts to revive a tourist industry devastated by the pandemic. On Thursday, it eased restrictions to allow more foreign tourists to return.

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