Thailand’s economy is expected to be impacted severely by the COVID-19 pandemic, shrinking by at least 5 percent in 2020 and taking more than two years to return to pre-COVID-19 GDP output levels, according to the World Bank’s latest Thailand Economic Monitor, released today. The COVID-19 pandemic shocked the economy especially in the second quarter of 2020 and has led already to widespread job losses, affecting middle-class households and the poor alike.
While Thailand has been successful in stemming the tide of COVID-19 infections over the last three months, the economic impact has been severe. The tourism sector, which makes up close to 15 percent of Thailand’s GDP, has been hit hard, with a near cessation of international tourist arrivals since March 2020.
Exports are expected to decline by 6.3 percent in 2020, the sharpest quarterly contraction in five years, as demand for Thai goods abroad remains weakened by the global slowdown. Household consumption is projected to decline by 3.2 percent as movement restrictions and dwindling incomes limit consumer spending, especially in the second quarter of 2020.
As Thailand starts to ease mobility restrictions, domestic consumption, Thailand’s traditionally strongest driver of growth, may pick up in the second half of 2020 and in 2021, but economic recovery will be gradual and uncertain. In the baseline, the Thai economy is projected to grow by 4.1 percent in 2021 and by 3.6 percent in 2022, which represents a slow recovery to pre-COVID GDP output levels by mid-2022. The shape of the recovery is subject to considerable downside risks, including weaker global growth, feeble tourism, and continuing trade and supply chain disruptions.
“The strength of the economic recovery will depend in part on an effective policy response, in particular effective support to vulnerable households and firms,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “As the recovery phase begins, a key challenge will be how to help people who lost their jobs reconnect with the labor market. Active labor market measures, such as wage-subsidies targeted to individuals in the most vulnerable sectors, and for on-the-job training to promote reemployment should be explored.”
An estimated 8.3 million workers will lose employment or income by the COVID-19 crisis, which has put many jobs, in particularly those related to tourism and services, at risk. The report finds that the number of economically insecure, or those living below USD 5.5 per day (in purchasing power terms), is projected to double from 4.7 million people in the first quarter to 9.7 million people in the second quarter of 2020. In particular, the share of economically insecure middle-class households with workers in the manufacturing and services sector will rise by three-fold, from 6 percent to 20 percent.
To protect vulnerable households, the report recommends extending social protection coverage to ensure that no gaps remain for the elderly and migrant workers. The report also recommends continuing cash transfers for the most vulnerable groups and, where possible, linking such transfers to training, mentoring, and other types of support that could create income-generating opportunities. Over the medium term, Thailand could consider establishing programs with universal benefits to help cushion against epidemic outbreaks as well as other negative shocks, complemented by more targeted programs for the poor.
“For vulnerable firms, the nature of support will need to shift from emergency relief to more support for productive firms that are still standing,” said Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank’s Senior Economist for Thailand. “This includes redirecting fiscal support from emergency measures to temporary job creation programs by easing firm participation in public procurement and public works.”
Going forward, interventions could revamp firm support programs focused on promoting firms and productivity growth, especially towards promoting investments for worker training, management training, and technology adoption.