Thailand’s protesters are intensifying their pressure on the government to expand its much-criticized vaccine program in the latest push to widen their support base amid a surging Covid-19 outbreak driven by the delta variant.
The pro-democracy movement has returned to the streets in the Thai capital after a six-month lull, with near-daily gatherings organized by different groups since June 24. But with a worsening outbreak situation that has put a strain on the public health system and sent deaths to record highs, the turnout was low compared to last year’s demonstrations, which had hundreds of thousands of people joining at their peak.
The most pressing issue for citizens is how the government has handled the outbreak and the vaccination rollout, Arnon Nampa, one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, said in an interview. “We’re working against time, especially when there are threats from new variants,” Arnon said. “We need mRNA vaccines and a new government as soon as possible to contain the outbreak and to avoid more deaths and economic losses.”
The call to drop China-made Sinovac Biotech Ltd. vaccines in favor of more shots from Pfizer Inc. or Moderna Inc. will be one of the key demands for a gathering planned on Sunday in Bangkok to mark the one-year anniversary since the movement officially began. The demonstrators want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to resign, a reduced budget for the palace and the military, and for the royal family to “turn their palaces into field hospitals,” according to Arnon.
Prayuth’s administration defended its vaccine program.
“The government makes decisions on vaccinations based on recommendations from the country’s health officials, and would like to urge people to listen to the medical experts,” said Anucha Burapachaisri, government spokesman. The government is also asking people to avoid large gatherings, which are prohibited under current restrictions and could worsen the spread of infections, Anucha said.
The protesters’ vaccine demand reflects the concern and hesitancy of many Thai people, who didn’t want to receive Sinovac shots that appeared to be less effective in protecting them, said Arnon. The lawyer and activist was infected with Covid-19 before his release from a pre-trial detention on royal defamation charges. He’s led the movement in calls for more transparency and accountability from the monarchy, which sits at the apex of power in Thailand.
This week Thai health officials approved administering Sinovac and AstraZeneca Plc shots as part of one Covid-19 vaccine regime, in a world first aimed at increasing protection against the delta variant. They also backed a plan to administer booster doses of Pfizer or AstraZeneca shots to health workers, who are already fully inoculated with Sinovac.
Both Sinovac and AstraZeneca — the latter manufactured by a palace-backed company — are the backbone of the Thai government’s inoculation program that has been 50% behind its target since the mass rollout began last month due to limited supplies of vaccines.
The country is expected to receive its order of 20 million doses from Pfizer in the final quarter, and 1.5 million more as a donation from the U.S. The rollout of the Moderna vaccine will be carried out by private hospitals as an alternative shot later this year.