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Thailand

Thailand's poor want to return to work, end lockdown  

As Covid-19 seems to be subsiding, many are criticizing drastic measures that are pushing millions to hunger

Carol Isoux, Bangkok

Carol Isoux, Bangkok

Updated: May 10, 2020 06:07 AM GMT
PARIS FOREIGN MISSIONS (MEP)
Thailand's poor want to return to work, end lockdown  

Thai police distribute free face masks and food to poor people amid restrictions set up to halt the spread of the coronavirus in Bangkok on April 9. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)

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The Covid-19 containment measures imposed by the Thai government have led to extreme insecurity among million of workers. Some are now surviving on the streets, thanks to free food distributions, but feverishly wait for normalcy to return.

"I've only been drinking hot water for a month now," says Jay, a young musician who worked in a guesthouse in central Bangkok before the massive shutdown began more than a month ago. Since then, he has been on the streets without any income.

He takes hot drinking water from the boiling water dispensers available in mini-markets. He goes to free food distributions organized daily in many areas of the national capital.

Every afternoon, in the historic district of Rattanakosin, under a blazing sun, long queues of masked figures wait patiently for volunteers to unload food packets from the trucks. Each will get a plastic bag with a pack of chips, a sticky rice bag, a milk carton and a bottle of water. A few policemen make sure that everything goes smoothly and urge, in vain, through a loudspeaker for people to keep a safe distance. Many wear caps. Everyone bows their heads, out of shame and fear of recognizing friends or neighbors in the crowd.

"Every day, we see several hundred more people coming in," says a volunteer. "At the moment, the poor Thai people are starving. In the absence of real public social services, these distributions are carried out by private initiatives, by well-off local families who wish to contribute, or by temples involved in the social life of a neighborhood."

A few days ago, in Pattaya, a seaside town living mainly from tourism, a similar breakfast distribution created a crowd of several thousand people from 4am onwards. The government has, therefore, banned them in the name of the risks of contamination and invited donors to contact the local authorities directly for logistical support.

The beneficiaries of these distributions are not, for the most part, regular beggars, but simple workers. They are often linked to tourism: taxi drivers, street vendors and hotel staff.

"Even though I try to keep working, I spend hours on the street and earn only 35 to 70 baht [US$1-2] a day maximum," says a 60-year-old driver of a tuk-tuk, a small open three-wheeled vehicle.

A little further on, some of them are sitting on sidewalks trying to sell their personal belongings to make a bit of money: used shoes, children's clothes, dusty fans. A lady in her late 80s is pushing a cart. Since she has nothing to sell, she offers to collect other people's things, sell them a little further away in different neighborhoods, to earn a miserable commission.

In the evening, those who have no roof over their heads unroll mats and hide to sleep in discreet alleyways. Authorities have imposed a curfew between 10pm and 4am, and homeless people are fined in Chiang Mai, in the north of the country.

Ready for anything

The nightlife is at a standstill in Bangkok. Restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues are closed, including the notorious red-light districts, which remained open during the recent riots and coups d'état in the country. Unseen by day yet very real, the hundreds of thousands of prostitutes in the kingdom are now among the most vulnerable people as they do not benefit from any government aid.

Another particularly vulnerable group are the millions of migrant workers, Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian, who were unable or unwilling to return home before the borders closed. Despair can be read in job-seeking advertisements; many are willing to work almost for free in exchange for shelter and food.

"I am ready for anything, I can do anything," writes Sothea Ly, a young Cambodian woman looking for hours of housework.

At the end of the day, some people have no other option than death. About 40 suicides directly linked to poverty have been recorded in Thailand since March, which stands in contrast to 55 deaths from Covid-19. The suicide rate is at least 10 percent higher than the usual average, which is already the highest in the ASEAN region.

The emergency call services for people in psychological distress are all saturated.  A mother who was no longer able to feed her two children by selling yogurt door to door; a taxi driver who had just been refused government aid of 5,000 baht (US$155) to the poorest; the owner of a small restaurant who had just made a major investment ... the list goes on.

"We have received more than 600 calls this month, compared to about 30 last month," says Satit Pitudecha from the Ministry of Health's crisis unit. 

In a slight softening of the gloom, the government has just lifted the strict ban on alcohol sales, which had been in force for a month. Bars remain closed but grocery stores will again be allowed to function, and Thai people will be allowed to drink at home according to the new decree.

The epidemic seems to be subsiding in the country. With fewer than 3,000 cases in all and not more than 10 new infections reported daily, more people are opposing the drastic measures and their economic and social consequences on people.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Mission Society.

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