A digital exhibition from
ART WORKS Projects

The Second Wave:

Thailand’s Economic Struggle

Ryn Jirenuwat
Lauren DeCicca
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ART WORKS Projects’ mission is to use design and the arts to raise awareness of and educate the public about significant human rights issues. To hear about upcoming programs related to The Second Wave: Thailand’s Economic Struggle and other AWP digital projects, sign up here.

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.

People wait for food at a distribution center in four neat, long lines.
Thai authorities enforced drastic measures such as imposing a curfew, sealing off the borders, and forcing non-essential businesses to close in attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus. For a country with strong dependence on tourism and export, the impact of the lockdown has been punishing, especially on those living hand to mouth.

When Bangkok entered the fourth week of its lockdown, thousands of residents had already lost their jobs, and for some, the roof over their heads. As the economic fallout from coronavirus took its devastating toll, Thais were forced to line up for food donations at various food distribution centres as they were struggling to feed their families.

With the number of cases rising to 2,854 on April 24th, around 1,500 people desperately queued for meals in broiling weather at Wat Don Muang School, further exposing themselves to the risk of infection. Despite the fear of COVID-19, for many people, the fear of hunger was, perhaps, greater than fear of the virus itself.

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.

A Buddhist monk receives a medical test from a volunteer at a mobile testing site.
Religious gatherings and pilgrims have emerged as a major source of COVID-19 outbreaks in many counties. Thailand is often referred to as “The Land of Buddhism,” with nearly 20,000 Buddhist monks and novices residing together in monastic living quarters across Bangkok. In the early days of the pandemic, there was fear that the Bangkok monastic community might not be able to fend off the infection.

On May 30, 2020, the Urban Institute for Disease Prevention and Control and the Association of Medical Technology of Thailand set up a COVID-19 mobile testing site in Wat Prachetupol Temple, also known as “The Temple of the Reclining Buddha,” and provided free tests to the temple’s 180 monastic members as well as residents in the community nearby.

While none of the results came back positive, the Buddhist and novice monks in the temple adhered to strict social-distancing and personal hygiene rules, in an effort to diminish any chance of an outbreak inside the monastery.
An emotional mother holds a tissue to her face in her home.
Eiab Sirinawaprakhon, 64, is the sole care giver of her bed-ridden son Apinai Sirinawaprakhon, 40, who is deaf and semi-paralyzed from a stroke. The day began like any other day in the last five years, washing her son, feeding him, checking the news, and collecting plastic and glass bottles from the trash to sell. What was different though, is that she couldn’t go outside to sell the bottles due to the fear of COVID-19.

Money was tight even before the pandemic; however, with rent being paid by her other children, the kind-faced woman survives on her elderly subsistence allowance of 600 Baht ($20) a month, which she spends on rice and dried food. By selling bottles, she could make an additional 200 Baht ($7) that could feed her and her son for days.

COVID-19 also prevents her from taking her to get dental treatment he desperately needs. “My son needs to see the dentist. His teeth are decaying even though I clean them everyday. We daren’t go out because of the virus. We are afraid that if we go to see a dentist, my son might be infected with the virus. We just have to wait now.”
Spiritual statues and images rest on a crowded platform.
It’s not unusual for people to seek out a place of worship in a time of crisis. Some people may pray for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic; others may pray for peace of mind.

For Eiab Sirinawaprakhon, 64, the Mask of Pho Kae (Old Father) or the holy hermit sage, buddha statues, and other Hindu deity images that she keeps on a wooden shelf of her rented room are her spiritual anchor. Whenever she is stressed, she meditates and prays to keep her anxiety at bay.
A person using a crutch and his granddaughter climb from underneath the expressway.
Sanan Yormin, 63, emerges from underneath a section of Bangkok’s Rama IX expressway where he has been living for the past six years. His granddaughter Pannasorn “Nadia” Yormin, 9, follows, using a small wooden ladder. He gestures with his hand, signalling her to be careful.

Aside from deafness, Sanan lost his right leg when he was in his twenties. Sanan has been through tough situations many times before, but nothing like this. When COVID-19 hit Thailand, effectively forcing businesses and even government offices to close, the city that never sleeps turned into a ghost town. It became extremely difficult for Sanan to survive.

A decade ago, Sanan would not mind if he did not earn any money, but the situation changed when Nadia was born. When Nadia was a baby, her mother was imprisoned on a drug charge, and Sanan took her in and raised her on his own in his makeshift room under the bridge until she was three years old. Once her mother came back, Nadia was taken away so that she could get an education. Now, occasionally, she visits him and learns sign language.

Sanan has been scrounging up money to pay for Nadia’s education. He looks at her lovingly and gives her a thumbs-up, indicating that she is a good student. At the age of nine, Nadia has already learned to communicate in three languages: Thai, English, and sign language. “I love learning English and Thai. I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” says Nadia in English.

It’s a tremendously stressful time for Sanan, but he’s willing to beg for money through muggy weather, rain, and even on scorching hot sidewalks for Nadia. Her bright future is ahead, and he will do whatever it takes to get her there.
A gloved hand adds a prepared meal to a stack of plastic meal constainers.
For decades, Thailand has positioned itself as one of the world’s top exporters of commodity crops, creating the illusion of a near-endless supply of food. However, the Global Food Security Index ranked Thailand 52 out of 113 countries in its 2019 ranking with a score of 65.1 out of 100, indicating that more than 6.5 million people in Thailand still suffer from malnutrition and hunger. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, urban residents living in poverty were already facing a food security crisis, and the lack of space in this urban environment means no room to grow food of their own.

When COVID-19 struck, bringing the country to a halt, the loss of jobs forced them to expose themselves to the risk of virus infection by lining up for food donations. In Bangkok Noi district, the Poh Teck Tung Foundation distributed boxed lunches to 500 people every day. Although multiple foundations and organisations have been handing out food donations in Bangkok daily, the demand is still high. There is still an abundance of food across the country, but without jobs, people cannot afford to buy it.
A taxi driver sits behind the wheel of his cab.
Chanit Khotchalun, 53, is a taxi driver, and like most, he purchased his own car through a loan. As the sole provider for a family of four, Chanit was certain he would be able to make the remaining sixteen payments over the next two years on an average earning of around 1,200 THB ($37.50) per day. But that was before COVID-19 began to spread. The pandemic emptied the streets of Bangkok and Nonthaburi, reducing Chanit’s income to 20% of what he earned previously–barely covering the cost of petrol. The hope of fully owning his car has now been replaced with the fear that it will be repossessed.
Four children are pulled by their parents in a rickshaw surrounded by cars in the road.
A family drives down Sukhumvit 71 Road after picking up a donation of rice and fruit from the Phra Khanong District Office volunteers.

During week days, schools under the administration of Bangkok Metropolitan Authority and Office of the Basic Education Commission provide free breakfast, lunch, and milk to students. But when schools closed at the height of the pandemic, low-income families had a hard time feeding their growing children. Many relied on donations to ensure their children get a proper meal each day and are now thankful that schools have since found ways to safely reopen beginning in July.
A queue of people wearing masks wait in an alley lined with awnings.
Phra Chen Community members stand line in a narrow alley as they prepare to recieve food donations from the Poh Teck Tung Foundation.

The Pra Chen community has approximately 467 households with 1,000 rented rooms, and many residents register as jobless. The low-income community, situated in central Bangkok near the famous Lumpini Park and financial district of Bangkok, is indicative of a growing weath gap in Thailand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated this economic divide, leaving impoverished communities in an incredibly unstable position.
Masked heathcare workers take the temperatures of motorcycle taxi drivers, who stand in a line for food donations.
When COVID-19 started to spread in Thailand in January, many companies recommended their employees work from home. As a result, the incomes of motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok plummeted. This happened weeks before the Thai government imposed a state of emergency to control the spread of COVID-19 on March 26, 2020.

Since the motorcycle taxi drivers are “gig workers” in Bangkok, with their income directly linked to fares, they do not typically qualify for government assistance and unemployment. Their daily routines have changed from buying food and relaxing at their stands, to taking a break from their workdays to find the closest food distribution centre to receive food donations.

Here in the Bangkok Noi area, motorcycle taxis queue up to receive food from Poh Tek Tung, a foundation that provides volunteer first aid and rescue services in Bangkok. At the entrance to the food donation area, certified healthcare workers take the temperature of drivers and others seeking donations to ensure everyone’s safety. The long queue might make them miss a few fares, but since they barely earn any money, the daily food handouts by organizations are an essential that they cannot miss.
A woman stands alone in an alley holding a plastic bag.
While millions of informal workers were waiting to register or receive the three month cash subsidy of 5,000 Baht/month from the Thai government’s “Rao Mai Thing Kan” (We Do Not Leave You Behind) scheme, Waewta Mankarn didn’t even qualify. Her job as a sex worker isn’t legal in Thailand.

The nightly curfew restricted her movement and that of her customers, so Waewta could only work until 10 p.m.; previously, she worked through the night. From earning 600 – 700 Baht ($19 – 22), her income has dropped to just 100 – 300 Baht ($3 – 9), barely enough to buy food and none to send back home.

Living on the street, Waewta has to rely on food donations to survive. The money she earns now isn’t even enough to buy her basic necessities. She had to ask the Issarachon Foundation for clothes.

Although the profession is unlawful, the Empower Foundation has estimated that there are approximately 300,000 sex workers in Thailand, and they are falling through the cracks in the government’s assistance plan. These are the people that the Thai government is leaving behind.

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.

A pair of young siblings rest together on top of a blanket.
Every year, in the third week of May, Thai children in state schools get ready for the new semester, or for some, a new school. The air is filled with excitement at the prospect of meeting their friends or making new ones. But 2020 has been different for soon-to-be sixth-grader Pongphat “Puen” Thananthaisong. COVID-19 has radically changed his world. Typically the school year starts in mid May for Thai students, but as of May 13, 2020, the front gates of public schools in Bangkok remained closed, and the schools instead moved to online learning until they were permitted to reopen classrooms on July 1, 2020. The pandemic amplifies existing inequalities throughout all facets of life–including education.

While his friends were completeing own online studies, Puen was spending his time teaching his youngest sister Naphawan “Gaem” Thananthaisong, 6, reading and basic math, or taking his bicycle out to ask neighbours if they need assistance shopping in exchange for 10 Baht (32¢). Money has been so tight that rent was barely affordable, and Puen’s grandmother couldn’t afford to get an internet connection or a new television to enable distance learning for the children. This has been devastating for Puen as he hopes to study hard and one day become a doctor and fears falling behind.

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.

A young boy rides his bicycle by a creek where he fishes at sunset.
Since the school was closed, the day to day’s activities for Ittipol “Max” Thananthaisong were changed from going to school to trying to help his grandmother to earn any money. Everyday, Max would either take turn to ride bicycle with his older brother to go grocery shopping for his neighbors for a fee, or, trying to catch fish in the blackwater creek near his family’s small home. On average he catches three fish with a plastic bottle and sells them for 30 Baht ($1) since his family is too poor to buy him a proper fishing rod. And with the money he earned, he bought eggs to feed his family. Max sees himself as a protector of his family, and he wants to be a soldier when he grows up.
A group of masked people stand behind crates of water waiting for food donations.
In the time of any disaster, the word “Nam Jai” is often heard in Thai society. “Nam Jai” is literally translated as the “juice of heart,” which to Thai people means kindness and compassion.

At food distribution spots throughout Thailand, young children are often seen helping their parents hand out food donations. Their parents are teaching them to have “Nam Jai” towards fellow human beings or those in need. This is why Thailand has a long history of volunteering and donations, whether it be time, valuable goods, money, or food.
Three healthcare workers with gloves and masks sit in front of statues at a monestary.
On May 30, 2020, the Urban Institute for Disease Prevention and Control and the Association of Medical Technology of Thailand set up a free COVID-19 mobile testing site in Wat Pho in Bangkok. The goal was to provide tests to the monastic members and nearby residents. The monks and residents also received free flu vaccines. The testing was part of the government’s plan to monitor and create a more robust healthcare system to support the potential second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Under Thailand’s Universal Health Care Scheme, Thai citizens are entitled to receive free treatment for COVID-19.
A person steps inside a mobile testing lab as two others stand outisde the truck.
A female resident from Petchkasem 3 community steps into a COVID-19 mobile testing lab in Bangkok’s Bang Khae District, provided for free by the Department of Disease Control and the Urban Institute for Disease Prevention and Control.

Over the last two decades, Thailand’s Department of Disease control has faced daunting challenges: SARS, MERS, and Avian flu. The Ministry of Public Health has invested heavily in research and development of disease control, as well as the healthcare system as a whole, to promote the better health of Thai people.

Thailand has a sophisticated Universal Health Care system where its citizens are entitled to receive the National Universal Health Coverage, known as the Gold Card. During the COVID-19 crisis, over one million health care volunteers worked to monitor possible infections in every part of the Kingdom. Dedicated health officers worked round-the-clock to save lives, and people cooperated by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. This undoubtedly helped Thailand to curb the spread of the virus well before many other countries.
A man sits in front of his three children who are sitting on a staircase.
In the midst of the COVID-19 infection, on April 9, 2020, the Ministry of Education issued a notice that educational institutions will be reopened by July 1, 2020, as opposed to the traditional Thai Back-to-School day in the third week of May.

As the lockdown was still in place, and with the temporary closure of childcare and schools, parents who were fortunate enough to still have jobs were struggling to cope with childcare. Those that lost their jobs struggled to feed their children.

During the lockdown period, Saman Prasong, 44, a motorcycle taxi and messenger in Bangkok, had to sacrifice his work time to go home and check on his children. Occasionally, Saman also looked after the neighbours’ children Tonsakul Pongboriboon and Tharathep Sae-house, who grew up with his youngest son Suppawit Prasong. Their parents also struggled to adjust to the difficulties and hardships brought on by the pandemic.
A masked healthcare worker assists an elderly person in their home.
Thailand’s elderly population is particularly at risk. About ten million Thais are over 60–approximately 16% of the population.

In a time when social distancing is the new normal, the elderly are struggling to get by, regardless of any preexisting health conditions, as they are unable to leave their homes and seek help. Some elderly Thais rely on volunteers from aid and rescue foundations to bring them meals, but that help does not come every day.
A person wearing a mask rides their bike through streets lined with homes.
A woman wearing a face mask rides her bicycle through the Soi Polo neighborhood in Bangkok’s Central Business District. Residents pack into small homes in crowded slums just a 20 minute walk from some of Thailand’s most expensive condominiums.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, Thailand was cited as having the largest wealth gap in ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 2018 by Credit Suisse Research Institute, with 1% of Thai’s owning 67% of the country’s wealth.

As global travel was banned and borders closed, the lack of money from foreign tourism hit lower income Thais the hardest. With little savings and their businesses shuttered, the prolonged effects of the pandemic are expected to deplete what few assets those living in poverty have left.

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.

A mother holds her young child around three other family members who all live in close proximity.
“Practice social distancing. Wear face mask. Keep good personal hygiene.”

These protocols sound simple enough to follow if you are able to work from home, have the place to yourself, and the privilege of stockpiling.

But as the world descended deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic, with face masks and hand sanitiser becoming the most coveted commodities, prices skyrocketed, leaving those who cannot afford them in a vulnerable position.

Socially distancing is nearly impossible when people have to remain in close proximity with no alternatives. For Ying Suksawas, who shares a dilapidated two story house with 17 other family members and two dogs in the overpopulated Phra Chen Community, practicing social distancing in her own home is impossible.

“My husband works as a food delivery man, so he is so scared of the virus. He is scared that he might carry the virus and infect our children. He tells them to stay away, but our space is so small.”

While school were still closed in May, her children and nephews Anucha Suksawas, Piyawat Saengthong, Anuchit Dechaphong, and Charachon Phansaeng, stayed home in close proximity, only leaving occasionally to line up for food donations. Now the children are back at school, but must practice strict social distancing while in class.

“I am more worried about money than the coronavirus, but we try to wear masks and wash our hands. But if we really have no good karma left and become infected, I hope we all go together. We die together. So, nobody is left behind and struggles with living and financial burdens.
Reporters kneel in front of a group of people in masks, holding up microphones.
War War Htwe, 29, a migrant worker from Myanmar, gives an interview to the press on how the garment factory she worked for did not compensate her, highlighting the strugles of both migrant workers and Thai workers. War War Htwe is pregnant with her first child, does not have money, and is unable to go back to her hometown of Mandalay due to border closures.

The labor union that War War Htwe is a member of submitted the letter to the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare for help. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced her factory to close, around 180 workers were temporarily unemployed with their salaries postponed until reopening. The labour union also claimed the factory did not pay the Social Security Fund for their employees after deducting fees from their salaries, disqualifying employees from receiving medical treatment and other benefits. The factory, as quoted by the labour union, claimed the outbreak caused them to stop operations. They laid the employees off by giving only verbal notice and would not let their employees resign, leaving the employees in total economic limbo.

Nearly two weeks after she submitted her complaint, on May 25, 2020, War War Htwe finally returned to Myanmar and was paid only 62% of her wages even after the immigration police pressured her employers.
A person on a boat accepts a donation from someone standing on the dock.
A Thai woman accepts a food, water, and face mask donation from the Poh Tek Tung Foundation from her longtail boat on the Bang Khun Si Khlong (Canal), Bangkok.

In the time of pandemic, the price of face masks and hand sanitizer shot up beyond the reach of the poor. They have to rely on donations to be able to protect themselves from the virus.

Even though many organisations, foundations, and government agencies routinely give out relief effort packages and hot meals to Bangkok residents, those living in the margins often still fall through the cracks.

Thailand has a sophisticated health care system, and every Thai citizen is entitled to coverage. But even under normal circumstances, for sick people who live in poverty and deprivation, the idea of coughing up enough money to pay for transportation to a public hospital is still untenable. Many prefer to spend their time working to pay for rent and sustenance, enduring the pain from their illness.
A young child wearing a mask and face shield accepts supplies from volunteer rescue staff.
A young Thai girl wearing a mask and face shield is given hand sanitizer by Poh Teck Tung Rescue volunteer staff while waiting in a socially distanced line to receive a free meal. When COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, China, the Thai government and local volunteer organizations provided hand sanitizer and face masks to citizens in an early attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
Mothers and their young children wait in line to collect a daily food donation.
Mothers and their young children wait in line to collect a daily food donation on Sukhumvit 71 alley in Bangkok.

Raising a small child is already a difficult task under normal circumstances, but with the onset of COVID-19 in Thailand, low-income parents faced tougher challenges: some were furloughed, some lost their jobs. Multiple groups have been giving out hot meals across Bangkok daily, but the economic impacts of COVID-19 still have a devastating effect on parents in poverty.

With many parents losing their jobs, the few that are fortunate enough to retain employment have to work harder. The temporary closure of state childcare from March until July ultimately deprived children of their basic needs. Mothers struggled to feed their young children due to the nature of food donations; the care packages and the hot meals they received oftentimes did not contain baby formula or food suitable for young children. Often, babies were left to be fed with sweetened condensed milk whereas toddlers were fed with instant porridge, neither of which provided enough calories or proper nutrition.
A person with a food trolley hands water to a nearby person in the alleyway.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the Issarachon Foundation’s temporary food pantry in Trok Sakae alley, Bangkok, became overwhelmed by the number of people in need–both homeless and not.

Siri “Tata” Nilapruek, 41, has worked as a volunteer for the foundation that has aided homeless people and sex workers for over a decade. She says she has seen double to triple the demand for food since many people have recently lost their jobs due to the the economic downturn.

After preparing the food at the pantry, Tata fills a trolley with hot meals and drinking water and walks with her fellow volunteers through the dark alleyways; dimly lit street lamps lead the way. Normally, there would only be homeless people asking for food handouts, but now workers earning low wages stop them to ask for a hot meal as well.
A person sits on the ground outside next to another person in a chair.
Weerachart Kiatkaew, 50, (left) has been living on and off the streets since 1990. Unlike many of his fellow drifters, he does have a family home to go back to, but a longstanding family feud has torn the family apart, scarring his mind so deeply that he’d rather live without his kin.

Earlier this year, Weerachart worked as a construction worker and a house painter. On a good day, he could earn up to 700 – 800 Baht ($21 – 25), which would be enough to buy food and rent a cheap room to stay in for a few days. When COVID-19 began to spread, jobs become impossibly scarce, and he was forced to take lower paid jobs: lifting goods and packing shops for sellers that would hire him, earning 80 Baht ($2.50) a day.

Now, every night, he sleeps in a portable folding bed under a large Indian-almond tree along the Khlong Lot canal. When the rain comes, he takes refuge under a patio umbrella belonging to a street food stall nearby. He occasionally doles out his earnings to feed street cats who keep him company at night.

Unable to rely on anybody, and accustomed to living by his own means, he doesn’t seek help either from the government or his family.

“I don’t like to play the poverty card because it’s such a waste of time. I’d rather spend time finding a job. And if I went back to my family, I would face nothing but belittlement and discouragement. I don’t want that.”
A bridge over a small body of water leads to housing.
According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority statistic in 2018, nearly 580,000 residents were living in overcrowded communities with toilets in deplorable conditions, making it nearly impossible for them to maintain good personal hygiene or practice social distancing–further increasing the risk of contagion.

In Bangkok’s Rama IX area, a dilapidated makeshift bridge leads the way to a community where nearly half of its 112 dwellers were born with hearing loss. They live in rooms so small that the residents can barely stretch their arms out without touching the walls. Their roof is the bottom of a concrete expressway.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak struck, their lives were already unrelentingly difficult. They live on the bread line, and for them, a day without work means a day without food.

One could say that the the state of the makeshift bridge symbolises the lives the people of this deaf community are leading: one tiny misstep could be fatal, and there’s nothing to fall back on. It’s hard enough for able-bodied Thais to find work or financial aid during the time of global health crisis. However, with difficulty communicating and barely any education, these people are facing one of the largest challenges of their lives, which they fear will linger beyond their generation.
A person in a mask stands in front of four workers in blue shirts.
People wait in lines at a complaint center set up for unemployed Thai’s who didn’t receive the 5,000 baht ($156) per month financial aid. For several days in early May, around 1,000 people per day applied for 3-month unemployment relief by queueing in 110-degree temperatures to submit their complaints and hopefully be approved to start receiving unemployment assistance.

Jarae Khanwong, 46, lost his job as a traditional Thai masseur in late January (two months before Bangkok entered the lockdown) since his workplace primarily served Chinese tourists. As he is unable to get another job and already emptied his savings, he relies on food donations.

On May 5, 2020, he took a free bus all the way from the other side of Bangkok to submit a complaint at the complaint center in hopes that he would get the money faster. For him, the 5,000 Baht cash handout would not only prolong his life, but he could also send some of it to help his ailing mother.

“I can still survive since I live with friends and we help each other. I am discouraged and feel so exhausted, but I am worried about my mother. She is old now. So, I have to fight.”
Two people stand in front of stacked cardboard boxes filled with relief supplies.
Since the beginning of May, Thailand has managed to slow down the spread of the COVID-19, but its profound impact on the economy is still growing.

With many residents losing their employment, the Ratpattana community members in Minburi district, Bangkok, tried to extend help to one another.

Petchpailin Manwong, 31, (left) and Nattaya Manwong, 56, are both board members in their community and spend time organising relief supplies to be equally shared among residents, who continue to employ strict social distancing precautions. Even during the month of Ramadan, a time where traditionally communities gather in large groups at the Mosque to pray and break their fast, families instead had to pick up food donations to celebrate in their own homes. Measures include monitoring and notifying the community board members of strangers coming into the community, checking temperatures, and promoting frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation.

All of these measures are in place in order to protect their community from the spread of COVID-19. This is especially important as the community consists largely of elderly people, bedridden patients, people with disabilities, and young children.
A person sits on the curb eating food next to a traffic cone.
A homeless man eats food donated from Issarachon Foundation in Trok Sakae alley, Bangkok.

Every Tuesday for years, the Issarachon Foundation has donated food to homeless people in Trok Sakae alley, Bangkok. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, their food pantry was overrun by the surge of demands–not only from the homeless, but also those working as low-income labourers. It was like nothing the Foundation had ever dealt with before.

According to Adchara Saravari, secretary-general of the Issarachon Foundation, there were nearly 5,000 homeless people living in Bangkok in 2019, but the number will likely increase in 2020 after the economic fallout from the pandemic forces businesses to close, driving workers out of their jobs and leaving them unable to pay rent.
A grandfather hands meals to two grandchildren next to their motorcycle.
At a food donation site in the Bangkok Noi District, a grandfather hands lunch boxes to his grandsons.

When schools are closed and parents have to earn a living, it is Thai tradition that grandparents shoulder the burden of childcare. However, during the pandemic, young children and the elderly are two of the most vulnerable groups in terms of lack of nutrition and care and infection, respectively. But with the lack of jobs and fewer working hours, low income families (including the elderly) have had to rely on food donations, meaning they must bring children or grandchildren along to line up for meals.
A person leaning on a cane walks outside their home.
As dark skies loomed over Bangkok’s Ladphroa district, indicating a violent rainstorm, Som-eng Saehouse, 70, leans against her walking cane, moving as fast as she can as she tries to get to her destination: a food donation location set up by the Por Teck Tung Foundation. It took her almost 10 minutes to get to the location 400 metres from her apartment, but a small box of donated meals helps a lot when she only earns 60 – 70 Baht ($1.85 – 2.20) on the days that she works.

Som-eng works as a garbage collector, scavenging through rubbish piles near her rented apartment searching for empty glasses, bottles, and cardboard boxes. Although she lives with six other family members and her grandchildren and children are still working and earning minimum wages, she prefers to work so she can buy her own food. But when the pandemic struck and business sectors came to a standstilll, prices of recycleable waste decreased. One kilogram of cardboard box paper waste is priced at merely 1 Baht ($0.031),

Still, Som-eng was content that she could continue to work and afford her own food. Of course, the spread of COVID-19 concerned her when she had to drop off the valuable waste that she had picked, but she was determined to be brave.

“I am scared of the virus, but I know how to clean myself. I don’t go anywhere randomly. I go to sell these items, and I go straight back home to shower right away. Don’t be too afraid. Diseases always come and go.”
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Click through each portrait to learn more about their story, and click or drag the row to see more portraits.

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

Lauren DeCicca

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John Lee
Studio Durational

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Alex Wen

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Annalise Flynn-Taylor
ART WORKS Projects

Ryn Jirenuwat

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. 

Twitter: @Ryn_writes

Lauren DeCicca

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.

Instagram: @deciccaphoto

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