The Roles of Thailand's City Municipalities in the COVID-19 Crisis.

AuthorVongsayan, Hatchakorn

During the pandemic, Thailand was praised for its adept management of the coronavirus outbreak. Much of the credit was given to the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) established by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and to Thailand's provincial administrations, an extended apparatus of national government outside Bangkok. However, the role of local authorities has largely gone unnoticed.

This article examines the role of local administrations--specifically the city municipalities (thesaban nakhon) which govern the urban areas outside Bangkok--in fighting the pandemic from February to August 2020. The main purpose is to unpack the municipalities' capacity for handling COVID-19. We examine how they were able to adjust pre-existing mechanisms and create new procedures to cope with the crisis. Two municipalities were selected as case studies: Rangsit Municipality, a suburb of Bangkok; and Chiang Mai Municipality, a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand.

Thai politics have been undemocratic since the 2014 coup. Since then, all local elections have been suspended with incumbents allowed to sit in acting positions. Although a national election was held in 2019, it was under a voting system which allowed the military to retain power and which caused massive street protests throughout 2020. Despite the lack of immediate electoral accountability, we find that local incumbents worked hard during the pandemic to sustain their linkages with voters. The public healthcare programmes, for instance, have enabled the incumbents to connect with their voters. Speculation that local elections would be held in 2020 further motivated incumbents to work harder to improve their electoral prospects.

Case Studies: Rangsit City and Chiang Mai City Municipalities

We chose to study urban administrations because the areas they govern are generally more vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19. Both municipalities are the business centres of their provinces, while the number of cases in each province was near the national average. Therefore, they are both fairly representative of a typical city municipality in Thailand. Both city administrations have generally good reputations for competence and a proactive approach to health and education policies. Notably, as both cities are located in strong Red-shirt provinces, the incumbents did not ally politically with the central government controlled by the junta.

Chiang Mai City Municipality, located in Chiang Mai Province, is home to a population of 122,000, but as a tourist destination it accommodates a much larger number of visitors. The city is home to 94 communities, (1) many of which are poor and overcrowded. The municipality owns a hospital, two Public Health Centres (PHCs) and a Thai Traditional Health Centre with almost 1,500 Village Health Volunteers (VHVs) and 180 municipal healthcare staff. The first COVID-19 cases in the area were found among Chinese tourists, but the risk inevitably affected the entire city.

Rangsit City Municipality, located in Pathum Thani Province, is part of the northern Bangkok Metropolitan Region. The city's population is just 83,000, but it hosts many more people as it is a public transportation hub which connects Bangkok to the rest of the country, and is home to a mega shopping mall. Thus, the area was highly prone to a viral outbreak. The municipal executives have made significant investments in public health over the years and its public health infrastructure is generally considered to be outstanding by local residents. The city possesses five PHCs and approximately 300 VHVs.

While they have different economic bases, in terms of disease prevention they share many characteristics. First, they both are vulnerable to the spread of disease as they have some high traffic sites. Second, there are several underprivileged and overcrowded communities in both cities which could have been the source of community spread. Third, and most importantly, both municipalities...

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