The Naming of Digital Platforms and the Thai Government’s Image in the Context of COVID-19 Management
One of the more notable efforts made by the Thai Government to manage COVID-19 has been in its naming of the digital platforms it developed. The most important digital platforms deployed by the Thai authorities against the coronavirus to reduce public hardship have been mobile phone applications, COVID check-in websites, and the LINE chat application. For many, the names that Thai authorities gave to these platforms seemed to embody the egotism of the leadership of these authorities and their attitude toward the pandemic. This article suggests that the names the authorities chose for these platforms were indicative of a strong effort by these authorities to create a positive image for their pandemic management. Indeed, despite the platforms themselves failing to achieve their intended objectives, the positive perception created by the use of these platforms’ names was in itself an important factor in eliciting a positive public response to government efforts to manage the pandemic.
Naming of Digital Platforms and COVID-19 Management
Countries have employed various digital platforms to contain the spread of coronavirus, with two of the most common and important being contact-tracing applications and COVID check-in QR (Quick Response) Codes. In general, Asia-Pacific nations responded quickly to the onset of the pandemic in early 2000 by developing such platforms. However, the most interesting aspect of these platforms to this author is not how ‘intelligent’ these platforms may be per se, but the specific names chosen for these platforms. Before discussing the names of various platforms used in Thailand, this article will first explore the names of platforms used in other countries.
The most interesting aspect of these platforms to this author is not how ‘intelligent’ these platforms may be per se, but the specific names chosen for these platforms.
The Australian Federal Government’s Department of Health developed the “COVIDSafe” application as a contact-tracing tool. According to the Department’s website, the application helps identify and track people who have been in close contact with people infected by COVID-19. The Government of Singapore developed a similar application, naming it “TraceTogether”. Its feature, like Australia’s COVIDSafe, is to notify people who have had close exposure to infected persons. Meanwhile, Japan released a similar application named “COCOA” (Contact-Confirming Application), working similarly to its Australian and Singaporean counterparts. China uses a wider variety of platforms, all of which require users to scan QR codes with their phones on which information regarding risk to the user is subsequently displayed. From these straightforward naming practices, we can readily understand both the purpose of these applications and the public advisory information which they provide. However, the thought processes of the Thai authorities in the naming of the Thai applications seem to differ somewhat from those of other countries in the region.
Technologically, Thailand seems not to have lagged the other countries mentioned in this regard. As early as March 2020, when the coronavirus spread to North America and Europe, Thailand’s public and private sectors concurrently developed digital platforms to fight the spread of coronavirus. Indeed, a group of private programmers joined hands with Thailand’s Digital Government Development Agency to develop the contact-tracing application called “Mor Chana” [Winning Doctors], which resembles foreign developed applications by displaying users’ GPS locations and alerting them when they have been in close contact with infected people or people who have previously had the virus. The Thai developers chose the “Mor Chana” [Winning Doctors] name to foster belief that the application would reduce the burden on healthcare workers, facilitate patient categorisation according to illness severity, and generally help to improve the effectiveness of healthcare services . The use of the Mor Chana [Winning doctors] name for the application was therefore intended to evoke a strong sense of connection between the public and the public health sector led by doctors.
Not long after the launch of Mor Chana, the Thai Government created another application for use as a central platform called “Thai Chana” [Winning Thais]. The application differs from “Mor Chana” in that it is not a full-on contact tracing application that alerts users in real time. Instead, users scan QR Codes when visiting public venues, and the platform records the data on a central database which users and public health authorities can access via the application to trace the timeline of those infected during an outbreak. The important point is that, compared to the non-Thai contact-tracing applications mentioned, the Thai Chana application name does not directly indicate its function or purpose. Instead, it refers to the desired result to be obtained from using the application, implying that if the public is conscientious in using the application to scan the Thai Chana QR Codes, Thailand’s “winning against the pandemic” will be greatly assisted.
The Thai Chana application name does not directly indicate its function or purpose. Instead, it refers to the desired result to be obtained from using the application, implying that if the public is conscientious in using the application to scan the Thai Chana QR Codes, Thailand’s ‘winning against the pandemic’ will be greatly assisted.
Mor Chana and Thai Chana are not the only Thai-developed digital platforms whose name origins are based on a desired result and the image of a “fight” against a biological threat. Several local government agencies developed their own platforms and named them according to similar thought processes. For example, Chiang Mai Province developed the “Chiang Mai Chana” [Winning Chiang Mai] QR Code check-in application. Subsequently, when the first vaccines became available, the provincial government created a vaccination booking application called “Kam Pang Wiang” (City Walls), and in a public relations campaign promoting the application, people were encouraged to “help build strong city walls” as protection from the coronavirus by registering for their vaccination. In the southern province of Phuket, an application of the same kind was named “Phuket Tong Chana” [Phuket must win]. Besides the words “to win” against and “to protect the city” from the threat, similar word choices conveying positive meanings were used to name other platforms. For example, Pattaya named its vaccination booking application as “Pattaya Prom” [Pattaya is ready], promoting the sense of a strong and united community to overcome the crisis. Meanwhile, authorities in Bangkok, which is often seen as a representation of Thailand, named their vaccination booking application “Thai Ruam Jai” [United Thais] despite the application being for Bangkok residents only.
While these various applications added to the public confusion when travelling to different parts of the country or when receiving other types of health care services, one uniform attribute shared by these digital platforms was a communication of the same basic theme–that Thailand could and would “win” against the pandemic because of its technological and public health “readiness” and the Thai people’s “unity and cooperation”. That said, such an outcome is the author’s interpretation of those platforms’ names only, and in fact, these locally developed applications produced outcomes far different than intended. In fact, partly as a result of this partial public policy failure, Thailand’s performance in managing the pandemic went from being praised by the international community for doing an excellent job until the end of the year 2020, to becoming a country considered having very poor capability in terms of pandemic management.
“Winning Thais” but Rising Case Numbers and Death Rate
When “Mor Chana” [Winning Doctors] was being developed in early 2020, the situation in Thailand still looked promising compared to China, Europe, and North America where new case numbers and death rates were soaring. Naming the application Mor Chana may have come from the Thai authorities’ confidence in the public health system and their general belief that the country would be “ready” to effectively contain the spread of the virus. At the time, many other countries were commending Thailand for its effective preparation and low infection rate. However, many epidemiologists warned that because COVID-19 was a newly emerging disease, many important aspects of it remained a mystery to modern medicine. At the time of writing this article, much uncertainty remains over mutation and transmission of the coronavirus. The stark reality for Thailand is that despite the positive messaging about the “morale” of Thailand “winning” against the pandemic, the rampant spread of infection and soaring death toll from COVID-19 has overwhelmed the country since mid-2020.
The stark reality for Thailand is that despite the positive messaging about the ‘morale’ of Thailand ‘winning’ against the pandemic, the rampant spread of infection and soaring death toll from COVID-19 has overwhelmed the country since mid-2020.
In mid-December 2020, a large COVID-19 cluster broke out in Samut Sakhon Province’s seafood factory district and fresh market. The number of infections hit the thousand mark in a matter of two weeks. It was by far the biggest outbreak in Thailand to that time, leading to considerable speculation about how it slipped through the cracks while strict border measures were supposedly in place. Among those who tested positive with COVID-19 was Samut Sakhon Governor Veerasak Vichitsangsri, who had been constantly visiting the most affected areas. However, the outbreak in the area was satisfactorily controlled by implementing strict lockdown and entry/exit procedures.
Worse was soon to follow, as the dream of Thailand becoming a “winner” turned into a nightmare at the start of 2021, when a fresh outbreak of the Delta COVID-19 variant erupted in the heart of Bangkok, making it more difficult to contain this outbreak because of the diverse groups infected and their constant travel to other areas of the country. Shortly afterwards, an outbreak emerged in Chiang Mai, coinciding with the final examination week when local university students went out to celebrate the end of semester. An investigation by the public health authorities indicated that the Chiang Mai outbreak was linked to the earlier cases in Bangkok. Following the incidents in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in early 2021, large clusters subsequently appeared in several other provinces.
Despite infections and deaths increasing between the end of 2020 and early 2021, the Thai government evidently did not see the need to change its thinking, as its methods, technology, and messaging remained basically the same. Another significant contributor to the worsening of the outbreak was an unnecessary delay in bringing quality vaccines to the country. Amid all the chaos it presided over, the government still stuck to the same approach: promoting the use of “Thai Chana” [Winning Thais] and maintaining Thailand’s image as a “to-be winner”, evidenced by several very unrealistic announcements about early re-opening of the country. These failures further exacerbated the problem by widening the already large credibility gap between what the government dreamed of achieving and the suffering people were enduring daily, which only added to the widespread public despair.
What Do Application Names Mean (to the Government)?
Naming these platforms may be one thing. But if we look at how these platforms have been utilised, we may understand why they were named after their desired results rather than functions.
Scholars in the academic circle of Thai culture studies have discussed “the Thai regime of images”. The concept refers to the differences between social images presented publicly and what people practise privately.  The government’s efforts to create its image as capable of handling COVID-19 may have influenced the naming of platforms “Mor Chana”, “Thai Chana”, and the likes, rather than focusing on actual achievements. It was business as usual as long as the image of “We are winning” had been promoted. The local authorities also followed the same strategy. Chiang Mai, for instance, named an application “Chiang Mai Chana” [Winning Chiang Mai] while the extent to which the province stretched was plainly announcing timelines of infected people and long lists of venues closed after being visited by people with COVID-19.
The government’s efforts to create its image as capable of handling COVID-19 may have influenced the naming of platforms ‘Mor Chana’, ‘Thai Chana’, and the likes, rather than focusing on actual achievements. It was business as usual as long as the image of ‘We are winning’ had been promoted.
The image created by the authorities affects how people behave. When we are required to interact with these applications whose names are ideological, we then “take them for granted”  or comply obediently with the mandatory protocols. We check-in before entering a venue by scanning a QR Code with our phones or filling out a paper-based contact register, not knowing whether it is just a mere formality or a valuable contribution to public health. In a personal anecdote, the author, who was trying to interact with these platforms the least, was required to scan a “Chiang Mai Chana” QR Code before boarding a flight from Krabi Province to Chiang Mai Province. The action did not guarantee that the author or Chiang Mai Province would clearly “win” against the coronavirus, as claimed by the application’s name. After getting off the plane in Chiang Mai, the author could freely leave the airport without further checks by the authorities. If the author had had COVID-19, using the application alone that day would not have kept Chiang Mai safe from the virus.
The evidence suggests that the approach taken by the Thai Government gave too much importance to naming these digital platforms, as if these names gave it immunity against the coronavirus–and too little importance to developing and implementing effective public health policy solutions to the pandemic as well as to resolving existing problems which compromised its best efforts. There are many other examples of similar Thai application names besides the ones mentioned in this article, and together the consequences of their ineffectiveness are a scathing indictment of the Thai government’s “regime of images” and its public policy. While authorities may have a legitimate desire to increase their power to control and improve public behaviour and the public response to the pandemic, complacent public policy labels are no substitute for the development of good public policy, efficient implementation, and effective oversight.
This article is part of the Comparative Assessment of the Pandemic Responses in Australia and Thailand, supported by the Australia-ASEAN Council under Australia-ASEAN Council COVID-19 Special Grants Round, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
 For an example of the campaign promoting the application, please visit https://www.prachachat.net/ict/news-447255.
 Peter A. Jackson. (2004). The Thai Regime of Images. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 19(2), 181 – 218.
 “Taking something for granted” here derives from the “interpellation” theory introduced by social philosopher Louis Althusser. Interpellation is the process by which individuals or groups of individuals in society act or behave in certain ways because they have internalised a culture’s or ideology’s values. Such actions transform individuals into “subjects”. For example, when a police officer shouts to stop someone and the person turns around to answer the call, he or she then becomes a “subject” to the ideology created by the state.
Translated by Duen Sureeyathanaphat (www.translatethai.com.au)