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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.
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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.