After authorities in Thailand announced hefty fines on Sunday for not wearing masks during a spike in coronavirus cases, one of the early offenders was none other than the prime minister himself.
Seated at the head of a large table with senior officials, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was leading a discussion Monday on how to handle the new outbreak tearing across the country. Everybody was masked up, except Prayut.
A photo of the scene went viral after it was originally posted on the leader’s official Facebook page. The page administrators abruptly removed the image as criticism mounted, with many pointing out the bizarre contrast of a discussion on containing COVID-19 led by someone not wearing a mask.
But the real shocker came next. Prayut, who first came to power in a 2014 coup and who has been accused of leading a crackdown on dissent, was apparently held accountable and fined 6,000 Thai baht, or $190.
“Yes he did pay the full fine for first-time offenders,” government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told VICE World News.
“It’s important to add that he was not in a cabinet meeting, but he was speaking to a group of advisors when this happened,” he said, clarifying earlier reports.
It’s not the first time the gruff 67-year-old and former head of the armed forces has come under criticism for pandemic-related antics. In March, he sprayed reporters with disinfectant, telling the crowd, “disinfect your mouths,” after a journalist asked him jokingly if they needed to spray their hands with sanitizer.
Other Thai government leaders have also made headlines for the wrong reason during the pandemic response.
In the early days of the outbreak more than a year ago, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul used a derogatory term for Westerners and threatened to kick them out of the country for not wearing masks. He later apologized.
Mask wearing was already mandatory in Thailand on public transportation, in malls and many indoor spaces, but the new mask order broadens the scope. It includes the outdoors and provides for a maximum fine of about $640. Prayut paid a lesser amount because it was the first time he had broken the rule, according to the spokesperson.
“Police can decide on a case by case basis whether to issue the full fine of 6,000 baht for first time offenders. They can issue as low as 2,000 depending on the situation,” Anucha said.
There appears to be plenty of room for flexibility.
Earlier this week, Thai police caught a group of maskless motorbike taxi drivers and ordered them to cough up cash. But when they said they couldn't pay, the police forced some of the drivers to do pushups instead. Mask wearing is now compulsory in your car if there is more than one person and Thai broadcast journalists are wearing masks on air to set an example for the public.
Thailand was able to contain earlier waves of COVID-19 due to strict prevention measures that were implemented last year. But daily cases are now higher than ever, averaging thousands of new cases a day, forcing the closure of businesses and fueling calls for a tougher lockdown. Thailand has seen nearly 60,000 cases, with 163 deaths.
While it has endured the pandemic better than most, with a far lower death toll, it is lagging on vaccines. Thailand has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Southeast Asia, with less than 1 percent of its population inoculated, a huge problem as it tries to kickstart its vital tourism industry which accounts for about a fifth of the economy.