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Ever since Thailand recorded its first case of the COVID-19 in January, the deadly virus has touched every walk of life. Thailand was the first country to confirm a recorded case of coronavirus infection outside of China. Since then, fear of contagion has spread in society, and the government has launched aggressive measures to combat the pathogen.
Thailand has been praised domestically and internationally for its handling for the coronavirus, as the nation had no record of local transmission cases for more than three months (until one was discovered on September 3, 2020). However, an unfortunate outcome of the aggressive measures to quell the pandemic is the great expense to the economy and people’s livelihoods. The sobering and potent reality of the economic shutdown shakes the nation to its core.
For decades in the capital city of Bangkok, the people have demonstrated their resilience as their lives are regularly visited by cataclysm: military coups, political protests, the great flood of 2011, and other natural disasters. But this time, it is different.
As the coronavirus reached its peak on March 22nd with 188 cases in one day – a tiny fraction of daily infection numbers in many countries – the Thai government imposed a city-wide state of emergency and a night-time curfew on March 26th, paralyzing the sprawling metropolis and bringing it to a total standstill. Bangkok’s usual deafening cacophony of traffic was gone; roads were eerily silent and empty. The city that never sleeps had turned into a ghost town. This is a markedly different Bangkok to the one that many had ever seen in their lifetimes.
With borders sealed to prevent tourists, and the fear of coronavirus making many choose to stay home, the Thai economy is on the brink of devastation. Tourism accounts for almost 14% of the GDP in Thailand. Businesses were forced to close, and impoverished and susceptible people who could barely cover their living expenses before the pandemic struck are devoid of the privileges that would enable them to amass food or work from an air-conditioned home while receiving food deliveries and avoiding large crowds.
Job insecurity has become the new normal as 8.4 million people are at risk of losing their jobs in 2020, according to the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC). Job losses have been particularly cruel and shockingly swift, driving unemployed Thais into depression and bankruptcy. Many are drowning in debt with few available financial lifelines. Some have sadly died of suicide. The Legal Research and Development Centre of Chiang Mai University collected data regarding the suicides due to the hardships of the pandemic, and found, in April alone, there were 44 suicide attempts, resulting in 31 deaths.
The few fortunate ones who are currently employed are desperately hanging onto their jobs, even if that means they must put themselves at risk of exposure to the virus in order to feed their families. Empty bellies trump fears of an invisible sickness.
Jira Sricharoen, 53, works as a floral garland seller peddling her wares between cars at traffic lights. It’s a risky job that has the added hazards of getting hit by a vehicle, inhaling choking pollution, and potential exposure to coronavirus infection as she interacts with many people. The threat of transmitting the virus to her grandchildren is one of her greatest fears.
For the last 30 years at around 4 a.m., the grandmother would wake up to the deafening clatter of passing trains, but since Bangkok has been under lockdown, the only sound she hears now is her own breath.
As the stagnant, humid morning air drifts through her flimsy rented room, she savors the only peaceful time of the day she has to herself. Like every other dawn, she thinks – with a familiar sense of despair – how will she keep her family afloat?
She listens to the morning news while getting ready for the bus to travel to Pak Klong Talat, Bangkok’s most famous flower market, to buy jasmine, roses, and white champaka. She will thread these flowers together later at home, forming them into strong-scented floral loops that she sells at the starting price of 15 Baht (48¢) a garland. Before the pandemic struck, she would earn an average of around 400 Baht (12.90$) per day. Occasionally, she takes on extra cleaning jobs.
Jira lives with her three grandchildren just a few steps from the Yommarat Railway Halt. She has suffered tragedy here before, as her 3 x 2 metre room is not far away from where her husband was killed when he was hit by a train. For safety, she locks her three grandchildren in their small room.
“I lock them up because I want to keep them away from danger and bad people. Look around, there are many drug-addicts and insane people. Who knows if they might hurt us out of the blue?”
The grandchildren previously received free breakfast and lunch at school, but since the schools remain closed, they have had to stay at home, increasing the daily food bill. Their mother lost her job at a construction site and is stuck in another province, leaving Shricharoen to shoulder all of the childcare and living expenses. Raising one child is already a tough task, raising three of them together has become a more daunting challenge.
Though some might say the coronavirus does not discriminate, the potential financial and physical outcomes for people living at the margins like Shricharoen reveal existing widespread inequalities that amplify the vulnerabilities to and repercussions of experiencing this illness.
Jira still had some luck on her side, as the eldest grandson Puen, 12, occasionally helps with the floral garland making or cares for the youngest granddaughter Gaem, 6, when she is busy. The middle grandson Max occasionally fishes at a dark-watered creek near the rail track. Recently, he caught three small snakehead fish with a plastic bottle and managed to sell them for the price of 30 Baht (96¢). Unlike many boys his age, he spent his money buying chicken eggs to feed his family rather than football or Pokémon cards.
As the threat of coronavirus and the work-from-home measure emptied the streets, Jira has found it difficult to make money. The cars that are on roads often refuse to roll down their car windows to buy the floral garlands, for fear of catching the virus.
Puen offered to sell the flowers for her, but she’d rather keep him and his siblings in their room, focusing on their education. And since they live in an overcrowded community where poverty and drugs are prevalent, she fears that, left to wander or even work, they will be in danger. After all, her youngest son suffers from drug addiction and other health problems, and she has lost a grandchild in a road accident. However, due to their extreme need, she allowed Puen to ride his small, rusty bicycle to buy groceries for neighbours in exchange for 10 Baht (32¢).
While friends were preparing for their online studies, the grandchildren spent their time teaching each other reading and basic math. Money was so tight that rent was barely affordable, and Jira couldn’t afford to get an internet connection or a new television to enable government distance learning, devastating the children who love to go to school and learn.
The coronavirus yet again proves that it does not affect all people equally, but rather acts as a catalyst for a greater divide between the haves and have-nots. The inequality, albeit painful, does not come as a surprise as in 2018, the Credit Suisse Research Institute published research stating that Thailand is the most unequal country in the world, with the richest controlling almost 67% of the country’s wealth.
For Jira, she would rather spend the appointment time earning money to spend on the children’s education. She doesn’t know how long the virus will linger, but she wants to push them to succeed as much as possible.
“I want them to get the highest education they can get. If this virus stays for a long time and I cannot make any money, I would beg for money for them to go to school.” A grandmother’s love and will to provide for her grandchildren, will outlast any pandemic.
While Thailand had the last locally transmitted case on May 26, 2020, and the night curfew was lifted on June 14th, some anti-coronavirus measures still remain in place; the borders to the country remain shut, resulting in Thailand’s economy’s worst quarter since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998. The second financial quarter of 2020 shrunk 12.2%. It isn’t just Jira’s family that is facing hardship and uncertainty every day. Jira’s life is one of hundreds of thousands of people that are experiencing similar fates–or worse– as the May unemployment rate in Greater Bangkok was at 9.6 percent. as many sectors have been impacted by the lockdown measures, the uncertainty and pandemic since they have disrupted people’s entire livelihood.
“I’m afraid of the virus, but I need to go out because I don’t have any money [savings]. I meet a lot of people, but I do my best to protect myself. I don’t know what to do if I am infected [with the virus] because I must go out to make money.”
Saman Prasong, 44
When schools closed, Saman Prasong and his sons lived out of their run-down, one-room apartment. He had to come back regularly from his motorcycle stand to check on them, and this meant missed fares. One humid afternoon, amidst the deafening clamour of thunder and torrential rain, he spent time repairing his youngest son’s rusty bicycle while waiting for his regular customers to call when the rain subsided.
Apart from working as a motorbike driver, he also works as a document messenger. However, since most of his regular customers are office workers forced to work from home during the government imposed lockdown at the end of March, his daily earning dropped from 1,200 THB ($38) to merely 300 THB ($10) during that time.
Although financially more stable than many of his fellow Thais, he applied for the government’s financial aid of 5,000 Baht ($157) and successfully received the fund which he spent entirely on rent, utilities, and stockpiling food. Unfortunately, however, his wife lost her job at a jewellery factory at the end of April. With monsoon season quickly approaching, this added yet another obstacle, making the road through COVID-19 a rough one.
"I collect and sell used bottles and cardboard boxes, but everything is so cheap now. It's hard to make money. Harder than before the virus came."
Som-eng Saehouse, 70
When COVID-19 started to hit its peak in Thailand in late March, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha “strongly” urged adults over the age of 70 to stay at home. As self-isolation is a luxury for most people and especially for those who cannot afford to retire, the request was easier said than done.
Som-eng is in her 70s–a frightfully vulnerable age bracket for COVID-19 infection. She now fully relies on her walking cane to move, and one needs to shout to converse with her. Yet, she still goes out almost every day to collect discarded items such as empty glasses, bottles, and cardboard boxes, which she turns in for the small amount of 60 - 70 Baht ($1.85 - 2.20) per day.
Although her children and grandchildren still hold their jobs, they fear they will lose them as the low-paid essential workers are usually the first to be let go. Som-eng knows this. Going out to search for valuable garbage is her way of helping her family, albeit in a small way. “I earn small money selling garbage. I only eat a small bowl of rice in a day , but I prefer buying my own food, and sharing it with my family.”
"We are struggling more than before [the outbreak] but I try not to think too much otherwise I would be having a lot of stress. I try to think of this virus as a chickenpox virus. I maintain our personal hygiene, I clean him, and myself very often in a day anyway.”
Eiab Sirinawaprakhon, 64
As a young woman, Eiab Sirinawaprakhon left her hometown of Buriram to find a better job in Bangkok. Since then, she has worked as a maid, noodle seller, babysitter, caretaker, and even a medium. When her husband died almost 17 years ago, she moved into a one-room tenement where she is still living.
The mother of three stopped working and becomes a fulltime carer after her eldest son – her highest hope – unexpectedly fell ill following a stroke and would subsequently require round-the-clock care. Every night, she would sleep on a thin-rugged mattress on the floor, right next to his bed.
“If he gets up, he will step on me. This way, it can prevent him from falling down hard”.
Insecurity, fear, and hopelessness are weighing her down, while she and her son are struggling to stay afloat in this current economic recession, but Eiab sees herself in a better situation than many. At least, she and her son still have a roof over their heads – for now.
“I don't even get the poverty card money from the government. I have seen a lot of people that are in a worse situation than us. They suffer more. Some people don't even have a single Baht to get by. We are struggling but we aren't in that situation yet.”
“It’s very bad when the virus hits. I haven’t got any construction work. I barely make any money at all. I hardly get any money. Living like this, everything is money.”
Weerachart Kiatkaew, 50
Since Bangkok has entered the quasi-lockdown at the end of March, twice a day Weerachart Kiatkaew, 50, would wait - with hope - for the time he would be called to help the sellers in Sakae alley to pack up and peddle the pushcarts for the total earnings of 2.50$ a day. The job is unpredictable. It does not happen every day. Weerachart is living day to day on a breadline. A day without a job means a day without basic necessities.
Weerachart used to work as a construction worker and a house painter. Being homeless and an informal worker, Weerachart would be eligible to receive the financial aid of 5000 baht (150$) per month over a 3-month period, under the “Rao Mai Thing Kan” (We Do Not Leave You Behind) scheme, but the process of applying on the government’s website is too difficult for him to comprehend.
“I don’t register to get the financial aid money because it’s too complicated and too difficult. I don't even know how to use internet on my phone. I asked the kids around here how to use it and they were all saying I am useless at using my phone”.
“I try to make money, but there’s barely anybody out there to give me work. I can only earn 100 – 300 Baht ($3 – 9) a day now, and I spend most of them on food. I used to earn 600 – 700 Baht ($19 – 22) before the virus."
Waewta Mankarn, 39
It's customary for Thai girls in rural areas to help their families with work. Waewta Mankarn, who helped in her family’s rice fields since she was a little girl, is no exception. When she was 15, a severe drought nearly ruined her family's crops, and Waewta was forced to leave her beloved hometown of Chaiyaphum in northeastern Thailand to work in Bangkok.
In Bangkok she held many odds jobs, including waitress, bar girl, and karaoke club attendent, in order to send money back home. Unfortunately, ongoing struggles with mental illness and respiratory problems made it so she could not hold any job for very long.
Without a steady income, Waewta ended up sleeping rough on the street and working as a sex worker to sustain herself. Because sex work–though practiced widely–is still illegal under Thai law, Waewta unfortunately does not qualify for financial support. COVID-19 wasn’t even her main concern, rather, the restriction of movement imposed during the night that limited her ability to find a place to sleep.
“The biggest struggle now is finding a good place to sleep. I still sleep on the street, but there are many mosquitoes. I cannot move freely at night.”
“The government blocks people from giving out free food. They even fine them. If people can’t give us food, what can we do? We can’t earn any money. Should we just hang ourselves or jump into the river and die?”
Jarae Khanwong, 46
It was less than two hours before the nightly curfew started, but Jarae Khanwong was still sitting across the street from Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. He was nervously waiting for kind-hearted people to drop by and start distributing free food. The free bus to his rented room would soon stop its service for the night, but the sound of hunger rumbling in his stomach was making him wait a bit longer.
While most of Bangkok's residents lost their jobs when Thailand entered a state of quasi-lockdown at the end of March, Jarae lost his job as a traditional Thai masseur in late January since his workplace was catering specially to tourists from Mainland China. Having burnt through his meager savings, and unable to get a new job, Jarae started taking free buses to good spots for food donations.
As time went on, however, getting free food became harder. Bangkok authorities and police started charging some food donors for violating the ban on public gatherings and for failing to comply with social distancing measures. Jarae began to feel desperation and anger towards the authorities for their lack of sympathy but was trying his best to remain in good spirits.
“I’m discouraged but what can I do? I try to stay strong. If nobody gave out food or small donations of money, I would be under a bigger stress. I think I have a good karma to be born Thai.”
"I am so scared of ending up where I was. I am scared of being put out on street."
Sunantha Ar-yuyuen, 31
Waiting in line for a food donation, Sunantha Ar-yuyuen, looked beyond exhausted. It has taken her sometime to get a free bus to reach the donation spot near the Grand Palace.
At the end of March Sunantha lost her cleaning job in a department store, where she had worked for the previous two years earning 9,000 Baht (300$) a month.
At 18 years old, mentally-challenged Sunantha had been homeless and was twice deceived into working as a prostitute before being rescued by the Issarachon Foundation. Now, with only 400 Baht (13$) left in her bank account, the fear of being evicted and put back out on street is immensely worrying for Sunantha. Her fear is profound and embodied with a sense of helplessness. It takes a tremendous toll on her mental health.
“I cannot even sleep. I don't even have money to go to the hospital to get sleeping pills and tranquilisers.”
She is counting the days till her employer calls her back to her job, while continuing to look for other work.
“I am stressing about money from the moment I wake up. We have debts that are owed to banks. To survive, I have just taken borrowed 10,000 THB ($313) from a loan shark with interest at 20% per month.”
Kwanjai Suephayak, 44
Sitting slumped in a plastic chair, Kwanjai Suephayak absentmindedly ruffled her puppy’s soft brown fur as it slept peacefully on her lap. She is worried–very worried. Her overtime work as a cleaning lady was slashed. Her eldest daughter’s work hours in a convenience store were also reduced. Her youngest daughter struggled to study through online learning. Worse still, her husband recently lost his hotel security guard job when Bangkok's tourism industry crashed.
Before COVID-19 struck, the family of four earned a total of around 40,000 THB ($1,250) per month combined, which was barely enough to cope with bills and debt repayments as it was, but with her husband losing his job, the money basically evaporated overnight. The family now only earns 18,000 THB ($563) combined.
Kwanjai said her family had already been drowning in debt with the banks, but COVID-19 caused the debt to increase. She had already borrowed money from people she knew. As the economic upheaval unfolded, everybody struggled. The only lifeline that thrown at Kwanjai’s family was from a loan shark. However, the luck was still on her side as the loan shark was understanding of the situation.
“I still have to pay the 20% interest to the loan shark. It’s expensive but I have to pay. She has talked to me nicely. There’s no verbal violence like in the movies.”
"It's hard enough for general public to access welfare state during the normal circumstances because some of them have a severe lack of knowledge of what they are entitled to receive, let alone the homeless people, who, of course, face stronger hardship."
Siri "Tata" Nilapruek, 41
A decade ago, the thought of approaching any homeless person had never crossed Siri Nilapruek’s mind, let alone talking to them. Tata, as Siri calls herself, was fearful of them.
When her friend Nathee Saravari and his wife Adchara Saravari, who established the Issarachon Foundation to help Bangkok’s homeless population and sex workers, asked her to join their outreach mission as a volunteer, she thought they were out of their minds; she initially balked at the invitation, but eventually accepted. Since then, Tata has been staying put.
A decade has passed since then, and Tata’s attitude towards homelessness has shifted. She is now one of the most powerful Thai activists who advocates for better quality of life and equality for homeless people and sex workers, as well as calling for stronger state welfare from the Thai government.
Homelessness is an issue that various Thai administrations have swept under the rug for decades, pushing the homeless aside, keeping them out of sight and mind. As a result, some of them are wary of strangers approaching them, which often leads to them shouting abuse at outreach volunteers. And, as a member of the LGBTQI community, Tata is often met with verbal abuse and discrimination.
“Sometimes, they try to touch and kiss my hands or use verbal abuse, but most of the time, I try to avoid this and use my friendliness. These people need help, so I need to talk to them to get their information in order to get them the help they need."
“People, who are facing the bigger hardships, are low-wage workers who live in hardscrabble corners. We have recently seen a lot of them come out to get food donations. Some of them cannot cope with the situation and end up committing suicide."
Adchara Saravari, 33
Adchara Saravari is the secretary-general of the Issarachon Foundation, which leads the missions of aiding sex workers and preventing homelessness. This is a challenging job but it’s the job that she and her late husband Nathee Saravari, who established the Foundation, love.
While many people have lost their employment or been suspended from their work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, rising demands from Adchara's job have taken her life to a whole new level of busy. The pandemic has caused economic turmoil that sends homeless people into further hardship, meaning the Foundation’s workload has significantly increased.
For years, the Issarachon Foundation has been giving out food and assistance to homeless people at Trok Sakae alley in Bangkok, but recently, Adchara has seen a surge in new faces of homeless and low-income families lining up to get food. The Foundation now also helps register them for the government’s cash handout program. Of course, the money helps, but Achara says it is just a quick, short-term fix. A robust support system is what homeless people need.
“The homeless people themselves are not the problem, they are the result of complex social problems caused by the failures of the Thai welfare state and its overall management. We need a solid and strong welfare state, but the Thai government is failing to provide that. We also need a solid system where people can be put into improvement programmes and can choose what career they want to be trained in, and they know that they like. So, they can later find a sustainable career and provide for themselves."
“Now, I am more worried about money matters than the virus. I got a redundancy payment when I lost the cooking job. But if this money runs out, I don't know how are we going to make a living in this time.”
Ying Suksawas, 28
It’s such stark irony that Ying Suksawas, who has worked as a cook throughout adulthood while her husband delivers food via motorcycle, now have to line up for food donations.
As a cook in a hotel, her employment was vastly dependant on tourism, and when the COVID-19 crisis brought the global tourism sector to a standstill, it was inevitable that Ying became one of the casualties. The mother of two received a severance package, but she is worried that it might not last long.
Before the partial lockdown, Ying’s husband worked as a motorcycle taxi driver picking up fares and delivering packages for companies in the Lumpini area—one of Bangkok’s bustling and affluent business districts. But the job disapeared when “work from home” became the new normal. He started driving to to deliver food to pay bills, barely earning enough for them to survive.
Her sons are growing up. Her mother and siblings are depending on her. Ying now spends most of her time searching for a new job on the internet and lining up for food donations to save some money.
"I pray everyday that we get jobs back soon, and we can go back to work. I was thinking of selling some goods but everybody saves their money and doesn't spend so I didn't sell anything. I have been looking for jobs everyday. I look online, too. Normally, it was easy to get a cooking job in Bangkok, but now it is very hard."
"If I get financial aid, I will use it to invest and start my own food stall, or sell goods. I need to use it sparingly. It is my last hope.”
Thanyanit Khamchanuan, 54
When Thanyanit Khamchanuan, 54, left Phuket province in the last week of January, she thought that she would only spend a quick week in Bangkok to survey for the best place to open a food stall. Then, she would head back to resume her cooking job at a fitness gym and save up to pursue her dream. But the Coronavirus outbreak has cost her the job.
Although being native of Bangkok, Thanyanit had been working in Phuket for almost 20 years. Here in Bangkok, she doesn’t have a job or a place of her own. At the beginning of the year, she was hoping that she would earn enough money to pursue her dream of opening a food stall in Bangkok. Having unexpectedly losing her job, and having to stay in Bangkok longer than she planned, she has spent most of her money on living expenses. Luckily, an acquaintance let her stay in her house, in exchange for cooking and doing chores.
On May 5, the bespectacled woman spent an early roasting hot afternoon hours anxiously waiting and re-applying for the government’s 5000 Baht (156$) cash subsidy. She registered for the scheme two months earlier but had receive no news. The financial aid is her last hope that will help to materialise her dream. Albeit being jobless and worried about the virus, Thanyanit says she will never give up.
“I will keep fighting, because being human, you have to fight. You have to fight to survive. The more you are discouraged, the harder you have to fight to stay afloat and survive. You have to fight to the last minute. There's always a way."
“I get disheartened sometimes but I have to fight. It's rather shocking. My income has instantly disappeared. It is the first time I have seen crisis like this. And the virus is deadly, too.”
Chanit Khotchalun, 53
On a typical workday, taxi driver Chanit Khotchalun, 53, would start his day from dawn by driving around his hometown of Nonthaburi province – adjacent to Bangkok – and pick up fares to drop them off in Thailand’s capital city. Then, he would take a break and wait for the usual peak traffic times to start and work again. By dusk, he would be at home, taking care of his mother and his youngest daughter. Then, checking in with his elder daughter who stays in a college’s dormitory. His average earnings per day would be around 1,200 Baht (37.5$).
But when the coronavirus struck and subsequently paralysed the whole nation, Chanit would be lucky to get two or three fares a day, even after driving round the empty roads of Bangkok and Nonthaburi for hours. Chanit is now only bringing home 300 – 400 Baht (9 – 12$) per day.
Being the sole breadwinner for his family, and holding a job that cannot be done from home, it’s natural that he is fearful he might be exposed to the virus. After all, Thailand’s first locally COVID-19 transmitted patient was a taxi driver. But with the bills raking up, and afraid that his cab will be in repossessed , he has no choice but to come out to work.
“I am worried about the virus, but it is necessary to come out as I need to work. I am more worried about my financial situation because I have to pay bills. For the virus, there's chance I might or I might not be infected, but what is certain is that I need money."
"I have always had a hard life. I started losing my sight few years ago. Since I don't have any job now, I just starve myself, from eating two or three meals to just one meal a day."
Kan Chitsanthia, 53
One searing hot afternoon, partially-blind Kan Chitsanthia spent his last 10 Baht (30¢) to take a bus from Samutprakan to Bangkok’s largest flower market, Pak Khlong Talat. He is dealing with extreme hunger. Here, he had hoped he would get a free meal or, if luck was on his side, a bag with relief supplies.
After leaving his native province of Lopburi to come to Bangkok when he was just 20 years old and armed with only a primary school education, he could not get a high-paying job. Prior to the pandemic, he worked as a flyer distributor in multiple malls, earning him 400 Baht ($13) a day. The job only paid him for the days that he worked. In good months, he could earn between 8,000 - 9,000 Baht ($250 - 280) which was enough to cover his rent and living expenses—but not enough to save. With his eyesight deteriorating, some days he would need his friends to help navigate him to the workplace.
The job was gone when the lockdown came into effect. Without employment or any money, the thought of going back home never crossed his mind as he would unwillingly become a burden on his ailing parents. As hunger struck, the only thing in his mind was that if he would be able to borrow some money from his friends, he would be able to survive until his disability allowance was paid.
“When I had a job, I was scared of the coronavirus because giving massages, which is such a close contact job. Now, I don't have any work, I am just worried that I wont have any food.”
For the last four years, A, who goes only by her nickname, worked in a traditional Thai massage parlor that catered specially for Chinese tourists. When China halted all group tours, both domestically and to other countries, to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus in late January, this 50-year-old transgender lost her full-time job. A hates to be in a vulnerable position. She took a part-time job as a masseur in the Jatuchak weekend market to pay for basic necessities, but the job was gone with Bangkok lockdown order came into effect.
It was a pain for her to beg for food from strangers. Holding a box of hot food, with wearied smile, A declared triumphantly: “this is my first meal of the day! My friends and I went to get donated food in front of a temple, but there was a gang that always hangs out there. They took the food from us. They picked on us. So, we came to get food here”.
Her small victory has a vital reason, some of her anti-HIV medication is required to be taken with food. A hopes that Bangkok will resume to normal so that she can find a job and continue to stay on her two feet.
“I have never asked anybody for anything since the day I start working. I have to start asking for help because of the Covid-19.”
In April, the Thai Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking predicted that about 200,000 spa and massage workers will be out of a job by June because of shutdowns from the pandemic, but Nueng, who goes by only one name, already lost her job two months previously.
The 46-year-old transgerder worked in a traditional Thai massage parlour whose main customers were Chinese tourists for five years, but on 23 January, when the Chinese government stopped all the oversea tours, the impact was felt promptly in Thai tourism sector, and ultimately affecting her employment.
Throughout her adult life, Neung has worked multiple jobs to support herself including waitress, a receptionist, and even washing dishes. It’s her pride to own her own money. But the lack of work, the constant anxiety about money and paying rent are overwhelming her, compelling her to ask for help.
“I am ashamed that I have to beg for food, but I have to do it. I have to eat to survive because there's no job at all. I can't work. If I could choose, I'd rather work than beg.
“All I want is to go home. I am worried about my safety because I am a woman, and I am alone but I cannot go anywhere. I cannot even go home”
Wallapa Popdee, 35
Every morning in April 2020, Wallapa Popdee, 35, would ask a security guard, who wardens Bangkok’s Phra Buddha Yodfa Monument garden square, the same question: “Have the trains started running yet?”. And, like, any other day before, her question was met with a disappointing response.
At the end of March, Wallapa lost her job as a construction worker where she earned 12,000 Baht a month (375$). At the time, she was hoping that she would be able to go back home by train, but with the Covid-19 restriction measures in place, the State Railway of Thailand on April 1, announced suspension of services until further notice to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, ensnaring her in Bangkok.
With no money, Wallapa ended up sleeping where she could. Her face and exposed skin was reddened with mosquito bites. Trapped, alone and in total despair, she felt that her femininity makes her so vulnerable. The feeling of despondency had constantly played havoc with her mental and physical state. She was at a real low ebb.
“This is the hardest time in my life. I cannot go anywhere. I don't have a job and I cannot go back home. I have no money and I cannot even eat because I am so stressed out.”
“The factory repeatedly promises to pay salary, but they haven’t. My savings have all gone. They left me hanging for almost two months now. When I said I had absolutely no money for food, they said they would give me 500 Baht ($16), but they never did.”
War War Htwe, 29
When the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Thailand was reported in January, War War Htwe, a migrant worker from Myanmar, did worry about the virus. Her everyday life only involved working in a textile factory, getting food from a nearby market, and going back to her rented room. Occasionally, she would visit her obstetrician for prenatal care. A few weeks later, the factory told her and her fellow employees that they could only come in for work a few days a week. From there, the situation degenerated. With the impact of COVID-19 looming, the factory subsequently closed its doors. The employees were given verbal notice that they would receive unpaid salary. For War War Htwe, as of May 13, 2020, the payment of around 10,000 Baht ($322.50) has yet to arrive.
Trapped in Thailand and without money, she felt like she was on her own even though she was surrounded by friends. Her husband returned to their hometown of Mandalay to renew his visa, but the border closure to stop the infection from the Thai side barred his return to Thailand.
“My friends and I have been stressing out on how to earn money to pay for food and rent. All I want is to go home because I am pregnant, and here nobody will take care of me. I barely have any money to go see my doctor."
“There will be a lot of aftershocks when the virus has run its course. Women will be more affected than men. When women, who don’t have much education, are desperate to get a job, they likely to be forced to work in precarious situations”.
Jaded Chouwilai, 57
Jaded Chouwilai, 57 has spent much of his adult life fighting for gender equality rights and labour rights in Thailand’s patriarchal society. The founder of the Thailand's Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation said before the COVID-19 emerged, people on the periphery of society already faced socio-economic inequalities, but as the pandemic escalates, with the lockdown measures in place, they are facing a downward spiral of deeper and wider inequalities.
Over 35 years of being an advocate, he has never seen socio-economic devastations such as this one. His foundation has received an increased number of complaints of domestic violence occurring during the ongoing lockdown. The movement restrictions that aim to curb the spread of virus ostensibly trap women with their abusers at home. When the coronavirus outbreak subsides, Jaded said there will be more “aftershocks” of the impacts, and women with low level of education likely face far worse situations than men.
“When women lost their jobs, that isn’t just the end of the story. They will get jobs with unpredictable money or jobs where they can be threatened. There’s a case that a woman was raped after taking a job as a construction worker. This is an issue that the foundation needs to raise awareness of and give help.”
“I don't know how to get around to the Complaint Centre either. I am worried about the grandchildren. I also don't have enough money to go anywhere. My kidney hurts and I don’t even have enough money to buy painkillers.”
Jira Sricharoen, 53
For as long as Jira Sricharoen can remember, she has had to navigate her way through poverty and deprivation. Even in the best of times, she spent almost every waking moment thinking of how to feed her three young grandchildren and pay rent and medical bills.
When the Thai government began urging the public to stay home to fight the spread of COVID-19, the idea of stockpiling goods and working from home was far-fetched for people who live day by day like Jira.
Jira works as a jasmine garland vendor, selling the strong-scented floral loops to drivers on the road and earning roughly 400 Baht ($12.90) per day. Occasionally, she takes cleaning jobs. These are jobs that cannot be done from home. As the fear of the coronavirus outbreak emptied the streets of Bangkok, Jira was unable to sell the garlands to make a living. Her daughter also lost a job as a construction worker, leaving Jira to shoulder the childcare burden. Jira thought her life was difficult before, but the pandemic violently pushed her further into the margins and despair.
“Our shoe shop was forced to close due to the coronavirus. My husband and I no longer have any savings left. We are now using the handout money we got from the government.”
Ussana Thongkhamsuk, 24
It isn’t uncommon to see Bangkok residents standing in a long line to receive food donations in a time of crisis. But for Ussana Thongkhamsuk, who is in the third trimester of her pregnancy, it was her first time lining up to receive donated food and other necessities.
Standing hand in hand with her 11-year-old niece, Ussana said her shoe shop in a night market was forced to close after Bangkok authorities enforced strict measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.
This is a very tough time for her and her husband. Though they stay in their family house and don’t have to worry about a mortgage, they both worked full-time in the shoe shop, and their income has been reduced to zero. They were in the process of trying to save up for the arrival of their baby, and now they are on the brink of losing the business.
Her life remains uncertain as she tries to weather the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These are stressful times, but Ussana tries to stay optimistic for the sake of her own mental health and her baby.
“Of course, I worry about the virus. I also try not to go anywhere.” Ussana pointed at her hijab and jokingly said “I already cover my face long before the virus. We will be fine.”
“This is the first time I have seen a lot of people in the community losing their jobs at the same time. It’s because of the coronavirus. Most of us are struggling.”
Nattaya Manwong, 56
Checking the list of relief supply recipients in her hands while following the village truck which moves along at a slow pace. The truck is loaded with donated goods, and from time to time, Nattaya Manwong, 56, would stop at it the listed houses to hand over relief supplies. Some residents lamented at her they did not get enough supplies.
Nattaya has worked for 20 years without pay, as a board member of the Ratpattana community in Bangkok’s Minburi district. In this tight-knit Muslim community, with only around 250 residents, her Pre-Covid-19 duties would normally involve taking care of community events and children’s education.
As the lethal pathogen reached Thailand in January, her duties expanded to advise her fellow community residents to wear face masks, and use hand sanitiser to prevent the spread of the virus. She also monitors strangers coming to the community, as well as managing as distribution of the donated goods.
With a lot of residents losing their jobs, there are also elders, physically-challenged people and children, the board of Ratpattana community works their best to distribute the relief supplies, which include such items as uncooked rice, powdered formula, and dry food which are equally shared out. When some residents are desperately in need of help, Nattaya said, they help raise money to assist.
“When there aren’t enough donated goods, and the residents are struggling, we raise funds from our own pockets to help them. We try to help and take care of our own inclusively’.
“My income has evaporated since COVID-19 struck. I haven’t done any laundry jobs because the foreigners who usually hire me are scared of the virus.”
Jiangkham Theewato, 57
Before the COVID-19 economic downfall began, Jiangkham Theewato had already led a life of penury. Unwelcomed by her family as she was born with disabilities, Jiangkham felt compelled to move out. For over 20 years, she’s been living in a decrepit, makeshift room under a concrete bridge in Bangkok, using the bridge as her roof. Every few seconds, the blaring sounds of traffic penetrates the walls, but as she was born with hearing loss, Jiangkham is unfazed by the noise.
For most of her life, she worked as a traditional Thai masseur, but with strenuously heavy work shifts, she eventually physically burnt out. Jiangkham began doing laundry for foreigners who live nearby, earning around 300 Baht ($9) a day.
When COVID-19 struck, she lost the job, and being unable to speak makes it harder to ask for help. She'd prefer a job to charity, but she's desperately in need of food for herself and her 18 cats that she's collected from the streets. They are the only family she has.
“I prefer studying at school because I can meet my friends and ask the teachers about the lessons. Learning online is hard because I can’t ask questions, and the teachers teach very fast. Sometimes I cannot catch up. I don’t have computer tablets that I save the lessons and re-watch later either.”
Nipawan Vijitr, 16
When Nipawan Vijitr was a younger girl, she often wondered why children in her age group did not speak to her while they were playing. Instead, they communicated with her through hand gestures. Her father eventually explained that most of their neighbours were deaf and unable to speak. Her father and her neighbours later taught her sign language.
Even though they're able to speak, her family of six chose to live in a community where the denizens are predominantly people with impaired hearing because, as her father reasoned, it is quiet. When the pandemic hit, Nipawan became one of the few voices that the community has.
While the adults in the community struggle to feed their families, high school students like Napawan have their own struggle: education. With her school closed, she has to study through distance-learning on a small television. Since it’s the only television that the family has, she has to set up a schedule so that everybody can use it. She wonders how long the impacts of the virus will linger, but in the meantime, she will concentrate on her study and use her voice to communicate for her neighbours who are in need.
“It’s been four months since I could earn anything from begging. Streets are quiet.”
Sanan Yormin, 63
When Sanan Yormin was in his early 20s, he lost his right leg in a traffic accident–a life-altering moment. Born with hearing loss and without any education, it was difficult enough for Sanan to lead his life without the added phsyical disability. Each month, he receives a 500 Baht ($16.12) disability payment that he uses to purchase food.
For years, he has been eking out a living begging for money in Central Bangkok where he usually earns an average of 600 Baht ($19.35) per day. The money isn’t for him. It’s mainly for his granddaughter’s education and occasionally his son, who is in prison due to a drug charge. But when COVID-19 began to spread and many countries, including Thailand, came to a standstill, donations to Sanan dried up.
Still, Sanan goes out to beg every day even when it means he might have to wait the whole day on barren sidewalks to make a single Baht. It’s exhausting, but since schools are planning their opening again, he has to try his best. Since he didn’t have any chance to get an education, he wants his granddaughter to have the best education he can provide.
“The virus is unprecedented. As long as there is no definitive prevention of the coronavirus, I think we are going to live like this for a while."
Jessada Thewsuwan, 21
As the unemployment rate in Bangkok rose to 9.6 percent in May, according to KResearch (a division of Kasikorn Bank), assistant foreman Jessada Thewsuwan considers himself luckier than many people as he was able to keep his job. But with the quasi-lockdown and nightly curfew in place, his overtime working hours were cut short, significantly reducing his monthly earnings.
“I still have my daily wages, but I cannot get any overtime work since my hours are reduced. Around 40% of my income is from overtime payment. Now, it’s gone."
Waiting in line to get a free COVID-19 test at a mobile testing site set up by the Thai government, Jessada's fear of the COVID-19 outbreak ebbs as he sees his fellow Thais are cooperating to protect themselves in a bid to stop the outbreak.
“At first, I was scared of the outbreak, but now I am not that scared because everyone here always tries to protect themselves. They wear masks. It’s also a good thing that the government provides free COVID-19 tests, since as I cannot work from home there’s risk I might get infected.”
“I have been stayng in Wat Pho for almost 30 years. We have been through many crises such as the Asian Financial Crisis and the political unrests, but unlike the Covid-19, none of them had resulted in the closure of the temple. This is a historic time.”
For decades, it was virtually impossible to visit Wat Phra Chetuphon or Wat Pho without incessantly bustling and pushing through a throng of tourists and worshipers. Known to tourists as ‘The Temple of the Reclining Buddha', Wat Pho is one of the most iconic Bangkok landmarks, that visitors consider a ‘must see’.
But the temple’s deputy abbot Phrakrusiriveeraphorn, 47, said everything changed when the coronavirus outbreak started. Not only coronavirus emptied the temple and forced it to close, it has also disrupted the traditional religious practices.
“There was barely anybody coming out to give alms or pray. We understand that they are afraid of the outbreak. When the government imposed the preventive measures in late March, we stopped going out. We now rely on food donations.”
Living so close to each other in the monastic living quarters, Wat Pho’s 180 Buddhist monks and novices now strictly adhere to the social distancing and other hygienic measures as they fear the deadly pathogen. When they pray, they sit 1.5 metres away from each other. It’s unprecedented.
As of 31 May, 2020, as Thailand has started to manage to flatten the curve of the outbreak, Phrakrusiriveeraphorn said the temple is ready to re-open, but much worry hangs in the air.
“We are somewhat afraid that when we reopen the temple it will become a hotspot for coronavirus outbreaks because we usually have more than 10,000 tourists visiting each day, but we are implementing strict preventive measures to prevent a second wave of outbreaks in Bangkok.”
“This pandemic is very tough. We have been working every day since January. We haven’t had any day off. It is unprecedented. But the good thing is, Thais are always on alert, which help us a lot."
Dr. Preecha Prempree, 53
Upon receiving reports of a mysterious respiratory illness that sickened dozens in China in January, Dr. Preecha Prempree, Deputy Director-General of the Department of Disease Control under Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, deployed health surveillance systems and frontline healthcare workers to screen airline passengers arriving from China for the mysterious virus. This was before Thailand saw its first case of coronavirus infection on January 13, 2020.
From there, the country became locked in a battle against the infectious virus. At one point in March, it saw the highest record of 188 confirmed cases in a day, and the healthcare workers worked round-the-clock to save lives and contain the outbreak. Towards the end of May, Thailand started to flatten the curve of local transmission. As of mid-July, the country has been widely praised for its effective and successful coronavirus fight, as it has gone over seven weeks without a single local transmission.
Even with such positive outcomes, Dr. Preecha says the battle against COVID-19 is not over. The Department is still working to create a more robust healthcare system in order to prepare for a possible second wave of the outbreak.
“Our goal now is to create a strong healthcare system where residents in the community can effectively monitor any outbreak or other illnesses. This way, when an outbreak is detected, the community can notify us, and we can speedily control it.”
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As of September 4, 2020, Thailand has reported a relatively low 3,431 cases total, and the total number of deaths from COVID-19 is 58. At that time, there were 96 patients hospitalized.
While Thailand is currently experiencing success in stifling the spread of COVID-19, the ongoing economic fallout faced by some Thais–and many other informal workers around the world – will continue to have calamitous consequences.
For more information about the organizations currently providing aid to the people of Bangkok, please visit:
Ryn Jirenuwat is an independent Thai journalist, documentary producer, and news producer. For more than a decade, Ryn has covered a wide array of stories ranging from human rights and environmental issues to investigative reports and politics. She is a contributor to The New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera English, Channel News Asia, Financial Times, the Guardian, National Geographic, among others. Ryn is based in Bangkok.
Lauren DeCicca is a documentary photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. She has spent over 7 years in Southeast Asia covering political upheaval, humanitarian disasters, social issues and healthcare crises. She has photographed on assignment for The New York Times, National Geographic, Getty Images, among others and her work has been recognized by Photos of the Year International with an award of excellence in 2020.