Surpassing the Pandemic Through Calling and a New Career

About the author: Siriwut Buranapin is an associate professor of strategic management at Chiang Mai University, in the northern Thailand. You can contact him at siriwut@gmail.com

The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Peter Drucker

As things are worsening around the globe despite the ubiquity of vaccines, people stopped asking when this pandemic will end.  Instead they have asked how to live with the disease and its variants in a new normal era.  This questioning implies not only radical adaptation of workers in existing careers but also it yelps for new jobs that might lead to a novel vocation.

Take Thailand, with population of 65M, as an example. Until early May 2021, the nation had been praised by WHO and many others as a role model for the COVID-19 response.  On the surface, the success stemmed largely from 3 factors: the cooperation of citizens in wearing masks, maintaining hygiene and keeping social distance; the government decision-making based on science rather than on politics; and the quality of the medical system allowing people to directly consult with specialists without primary-care-doctor screening. 

What was left underpraised is a group of more than 1.7 million commoners who “gild the back of the Buddhist image,” literally meaning doing good deeds without seeking attention.  They are officially named village health volunteers (VHV) and since 1977 have served as a prime mechanism in promoting public health in normal situations. Thanks to the generous patronage of the Royal family the VHVs have sustained and grown over years.  They view their roles as a calling not a career.  More than one-fourth of them have formal education lower than bachelor’s level.  Their long servings inspired even the immigrants along the country border and foreign labors in factories to volunteer to perform similar duties during the pandemic.  They reinforced the lockdown policy and travel restriction, for instance, by diligently observing neighbor households within their territories, collecting information about anything unusual and then reporting to the authority.  For instance, a VHV living nearby my home takes care of 15 houses in the neighborhood.  She knows every resident by name and face, visits my family almost every quarter, communicates health promotion and once a year collects household-wellbeing data that are eventually reported to Ministry of Public Health.  

          With the success comes the challenge.  Many countries keep asking how longer Thailand can close its border from commerce, particularly from tourism.  They expected us to set an example of surpassing this pandemic and balancing the economic versus public health challenges.  Our neighbor, Singapore, asked to see the Thai solution on allowing foreign business partners to enter the country without the 14-day quarantine and, of course, without risking the local public health.  Besides the additional costs, the most burdensome pain point of business travelers is the number of days for in and outbound quarantine, which is approximately a month in total. Many business deals can’t be done online such as factory and farm inspection.  But with the quarantine requirement, those transactions would not be cost efficient.

To respond to this re-opening challenge, I personally had a privilege to engage in developing a new protocol of welcoming businesspeople who potentially would bring about significant contributes to the nation economy.  Let’s take a closer look at how a customer journey in business concept is applied to the government policy, which “in yesterday’s logic” would never make the goal achievable. 

          The inception happened when a special arrangement had to be made for General James McConville, the US Army Chief of Staff along with 10 delegates without quarantine for a two-day official visit to Thailand.  The main concerns were how to make this trip successful and safe to all participants in the midst of public eyes. First, all the touch points during the visits were laid out.  The possible risk of each touch point was then identified.  Representatives from Ministry of Public Health, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and staff from destination management company (DMC), together with officers from Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (who specialized in MICE industry) worked together to design the physical setting and interaction protocols step by step.  Academic staff, like myself also designed, organized and trained relevant staff.  From this ad hoc team, we invented the medical control team (MCT) which consisted of doctors and nurses of infectious diseases as well as air pursers who had long experience in serving VIP passengers in first class flights.  Medical staff learned how to effectively communicate with formal language and equally important body language (under PPE suits).  At the same time, former flight attendants learned about medical protocols to prevent themselves and others from infections.  The combination of the team members is the very key success factor of the visit.  

After the success of testing the protocol with the high-ranked soldiers who are trained to be well disciplined, the question is how to scale it up with tourists and businesspersons who are more liberal and expect flexibility. 

To make a long story short, I start from the scene when a group of international visitors arrives at Bangkok International Airport.  Upon reaching an exit gate, they will be greeted by a medical control team in PPE suite, informing about the protocol they will experience at the airport and during the trip – in English or the visitors’ native language.  

The Thai Department of Disease Control stipulated that there must be at least 2 MCTs for a group of 10 visitors and 1 more MCT is needed for every 5 additional visitors in the delegate team.  MCT leaders are those who have a degree in medical sciences, and the other MCT crew members have worked with airlines and travel agents with foreign language capability.  The MCT have extensive experiences in their respective careers, but they need to be re-skilled for this mission of the future.  The MCT leaders must be trained in the art of communication as they have direct responsibility to deliver and enforce hygiene regulations throughout the visit.  The primary focus of their training is how to exercise monitoring power in a soft and polite way that the visitors do not feel being controlled or threatened.  The other MCT crews must be up-skilled to understand the safety and hygiene measures that safeguard visitors, local hosts, other officers, and themselves.  They are also trained to support the MCT leaders to solve any cultural or lost in translation issues during the visit.  Both leaders and crews report real time via the MCT team accompanying the visitor group under PPE in every vehicle, on site visits, and literally in every contact activity, throughout the trip until the departure planes take off.

Some of retired medical doctors and nurses applied for an MCT leader role as a calling.  This is even though their compensation cannot be as high as their original career because the destination management companies (DMCs) are not willing to accommodate the cost.  The agents insist on not making the trip “unreasonably” too expensive. However, the MCT’s duties expose to high pressure and must also be zero error, otherwise they would be at risk of importing the disease or getting infected themselves.  The MCT crews had extensive experience on flights and travel services.  It has not been easy to recruit flight attendants to serve as MCT crews, as one might imagine.  As mentioned, this is a high pressure and error-free job.  Though many showed up during the training program, I doubt how many will remain if all the flights resume as pre-COVID era.  Will they go back to fly or stick with this new freelance career?

          Besides MCT, another group of service provider, the International Visitor Assistant (IVA) must be trained and developed.  The model once applied to General McConville’s visit was difficult to scale up because of its required specialized doctors, nurses and highly experienced flight attendants.  Also, for business trips like factory visits and incentive travels, among others, the participants normally expect local staff assisting and serving them during their visits.  However, we found that it would generate role conflicts if MCTs also served the visitors, while their primary role was to monitor their counterparts. So, we designed a new training program aiming at upskilling traditional tour guides.  Ironically, they were also out of jobs like flight attendants.  The IVAs worked closely with MCTs in accompanying visitors throughout their trips.  The main responsibility of both is to make sure all hygiene practices and visit protocols follow the pre-set travel plans at all touch points.  

          Since its inception, this system and protocols have been tested with top executive visits, factory and farm inspections of many business organizations. Teams with new job descriptions must work under pressure with zero error.  However, their services are critical in a new normal era of travel business and may possibly become new careers.

Too much success is not success.  It causes delay in actively swab people to realize the real size of the problem, and win their reluctancy in proactively getting vaccines.  When the third wave of the pandemic, due to the new variants of COVID-19, burst out, the country’s previous foundation has been shaken.  At the time of wrapping this writeup, the protocol has not been re-tested with any new group of international visitors since early May 2021. 

As detaching from the keyboard, I am looking out of my office window, overlooking the Suthep mountain ridge with my imagination wandering away for a next level of adapting MCT career after the pandemic.

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