Thai prisoners at ‘grave risk’ amid record surge in COVID cases

Thailand logs record jump in cases amid a spike in infections at prisons and detention facilities.

A supporter holds a drawing of protest leaders Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak and Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul, who face lese majeste charges, during a demonstration demanding their release in Bangkok, Thailand May 1, 2021 [Chalinee Thirasupa/ Reuters]

Thailand has posted a record jump in COVID-19 cases following a spike in infections at the country’s overcrowded prisons and detention facilities that has affected several young activists held on charges of insulting the monarchy.

Health authorities on Thursday reported a total of 4,887 cases in a new daily record for Thailand since the pandemic began.

Of that figure, 2,835 of the cases involved detainees, many of them held in pre-trial detention at two prisons in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Human Rights Watch, a United States-based rights group, expressed concern over the COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons on Thursday, saying people in custody were at “grave risk”.

The group called on authorities to swiftly reduce overcrowding by releasing detainees who do not pose a threat to others and improving prisoners’ access to protective measures and healthcare.

“The Thai government is obligated under international law to ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health protections and care, particularly during escalating COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Besides providing health care and virus testing, the authorities should reduce the detainee population through supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offences, or who face greater risk from underlying health conditions.”

Activists test positive

The Thai Corrections Department acknowledged the infections among detainees after a third leader of Thailand’s anti-government protest movement announced on Wednesday that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who was released on bail last week from pre-trial detention, said on her Twitter account that she was being treated in a hospital after testing positive for the virus.

The 21-year-old had spent eight weeks at the Bangkok Central Women’s Correctional Institute pending trial on charges of insulting the country’s powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

She said she had no symptoms and had tested negative while in prison on April 22. After her release, she stayed home for three days before getting tested.

Protest leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul reacts as she leaves after she was granted bail at the Central Women’s Correctional Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, May 6, 2021 [Athit Perawongmetha/ Reuters]

Two other detainees from the protest movement, including human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and Chukiat “Justin” Saengowng, have also tested positive for COVID-19.

They are also charged with insulting the monarchy.

A charge of lese majeste is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The justice monitoring and reform group iLaw said a total of nine activists had tested positive – four who have been released on bail and five still in detention.

The Corrections Department said it found 2,835 COVID-19 infections at the detention facilities where the protest leaders were held, after conducting a total of 17,000 tests, which included all inmates and staff.

At the Bangkok Special Prison, 1,785 of the 3,274 detainees tested positive while at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution, 1,040 of the 4,475 inmates tested positive, it said.

Vaccination drive

Thursday’s figure takes Thailand’s total infections to 93,794. The country’s COVID-19 task force also announced 32 deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 518.

The third wave accounts for about two-thirds of all confirmed Thai cases and more then three-quarters of the deaths.

The surge in cases and deaths has strained the capacity of hospitals to provide beds and ICU facilities and the authorities have set up temporary field hospitals to cope.

A medical staff member administers a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine at a newly opened vaccine clinic in Central Ladprao shopping mall in Bangkok on May 12, 2021 [Lillian Suwanrumpha/ AFP]

Thailand, a nation of 69.4 million people, has yet to start its mass immunisation drive, with only 1.9 million doses administered so far, mostly to health workers and at-risk groups.

As the new wave of infections gathers pace, authorities are seeking to shore up supplies of COVID-19 vaccines.

They are currently accepting bookings for vaccinations via a mobile application but will allow walk-ins from June, when the main inoculation programme gets under way, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday.

Anti-coronavirus restrictions, meanwhile, have been tightened, although there are no strict curfews or travel bans. In the worst-hit areas, such as Bangkok, restaurants are barred from dine-in service and can only sell takeaway meals.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies