Collective Mindfulness in Times of Crisis: Learning from Thailand’s Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic

Collective Mindfulness in Times of Crisis: Learning from Thailand’s Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic

. 5 min read

Wiphawan Limphaibool is affiliated with the Faculty of Business Administration at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world. At the time of writing, the world has logged more than 38 million confirmed cases, a number that will only continue to rise. It is difficult to anticipate when the pandemic will end or when a vaccine against the disease will enter clinical usage.

Thailand faced a high risk of a pandemic hit due to the high number of tourists arriving from Wuhan every day; indeed, the first confirmed COVID-19 case outside China was reported on January 8, 2020, in Thailand. Over a hundred cases were subsequently reported after a Thai boxing match at Bangkok's indoor Lumpini Stadium on March 6, 2020. Initially, there were fears that Thailand’s economy and a large number of its citizens might not survive this crisis. There was also significant confusion around the availability of masks, quarantine measures, and the specific rules regarding lockdown restrictions. However, by late July, there had not been a single recorded case of domestic transmission for nearly two months. The World Health Organization has chosen Thailand along with New Zealand for a documentary demonstrating a successful model in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did Thailand control the spread of COVID-19 so successfully? I argue that the concept of “collective mindfulness” and its five principles (preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify, sensitivity to operation, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise) are at the core foundation of Thailand’s successful COVID-19 response.

In 1993, Karl Weick and Karlene Roberts investigated the organizational structures of highly reliable organizations—organizations that can perform dangerous tasks safely and reliably—and found something surprising. They concluded that these HROs had something in common: an increase in attentiveness and mindful comprehension decreased the chance of errors within the organization. In other words, these organizations had collective mindfulness, an essential foundation to demonstrate how HROs avoid disasters and achieve nearly error-free results under challenging situations. As another study put it, collective mindfulness is the collective capability to recognize discriminatory details and promptly respond to them. Throughout its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand performed admirably on each of the five pillars that make up collective mindfulness.

Preoccupation with failure

Soon after the pandemic broke out in Thailand, the government established the “Public Health Emergency Operation Center” (PHEOC) working teams to deal with the pandemic. They make a continual effort to broadcast the situation regarding COVID-19 to every channel to build situational awareness for people, working hard to detect small failures in the system. When the first confirmed case was announced, Thailand arranged a universal precaution, advising everyone in Thailand to wear a mask to prevent the spread of the virus. Additionally, the confirmed case was immediately isolated to reduce the risk of community transmission, and Thailand immediately performed contact tracing, with the contacts to be identified, traced and quarantined and monitored for 14 days.

Reluctance to simplify

Secondly, Thailand is reluctant to disregard information. Indeed, building recognition of concern rather than comfort for people is essential. In March 2020, Thailand declared a state of emergency. People were told to stay indoors, and curfews were put in place. Social distancing was enforced. There are many measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission in public places including department stores, restaurants, and public transportation including limiting the number of entries, screening body temperatures, and scanning the Thai Chana application, a platform that the Thai government encourages people to use to prevent the second wave of COVID-19 infections.  These measures are the same in many countries, but Thailand implemented them early on and without relying on only one tactic to contain the virus.

Sensitivity to operation

Thirdly, Thailand has given precedence to its frontline workers, especially village health volunteers. The country has more than a million of these volunteers in 75,000 villages. In the context of the pandemic, the Thai Ministry of Public Health has charged these volunteers with giving the correct health information, coordinating health activities, and monitoring the disease. When people in the communities travel between provinces or back from overseas, the village health volunteer helped to enforce the quarantine. They have screened individuals,  sent people with symptoms to clinics for testing, and provided crucial public health information about coronavirus in local communities. Ultimately, Thailand has focused its efforts on these village health workers, shifting the frontlines from hospitals to local communities themselves by successfully relying on existing healthcare infrastructure. The village health volunteers are  immensely important and their strength has proven to be valuable in  fighting  against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commitment to resilience

Fourth, Thailand has focused on the idea of resilience when developing its strategies for helping businesses to cope with the pandemic. Resilience refers to the ability to handle challenging situations, to recover rapidly, and to develop from the crisis. In March 2020, Thailand ordered businesses that have a high risk of spreading COVID-19 to close to prevent an outbreak. Some were more severely impacted, especially the tourism, aviation, and retail industry. The government has approved three phases of packages to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 reductions in interest rates, moratoria on electricity and water payments, and emergency loans—with the hope of  increasing liquidity for businesses and individuals. At the time of writing, many businesses in Thailand have recovered from the relief measures, yet theThai government must continue to make the commitment to resilience in the tourism sector, which has yet to recover from the pandemic.

Deference to expertise

Finally, the Thai government gave authority to experienced doctors and medical personnel who were not paranoid and were ready to battle COVID-19. The Public Health Emergency Operation Center referenced earlier aims to prepare for detection, diagnosis, treatment and containment of the COVID-19 situation, drawing on the expertise of the country’s medical school deans and experts from the Ministry of Public Health. Fortunately, this PHEOC can draw upon the existing strengths of Thailand’s health security system, developed through the experience with the SARS pandemic in 2003 and other seasonal tropical diseases. These doctors have knowledge and experience in fighting against the similar infections and brought this expertise to bear in fighting the COVID pandemic.  Thailand is different from many countries in the world, where the leaders do not cooperate with the team of expertise. Instead, Thailand has experts make decisions based on public health concerns rather than political concerns. In this unexpected situation, deference to expertise is a core factor.

There is no confirmation that Thailand won’t be facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first wave, the main thing that supported the battle with COVID-19 in Thailand is the power and self-discipline of all Thai people. Collective mindfulness, the  ability of Thai people  to develop a precious awareness of the environment and regulate their behavior, is a meaningful strategy for  maintaining preventive measures in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

Cover image: A Thai public health official at an international conference on zoonotic diseases held in Vienna in July 2020. Photo by IAEA, CC-BY-2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.