Thailand now has more than 2.1 million COVID-19 cases and 21,000 deaths. Those in need rely on volunteers to fill the gaps in response work.
When night fell in Bangkok, Thailand, a group of homeless Thai citizens began to appear on Bangkok's Ratchadamneng Avenue. Wearing shabby clothes and tired eyes, the group of people slowly crossed the street. They are preparing to accept food donations from the Issarachon Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Bangkok that aims to support people in extreme poverty.
The head of the foundation at the top has a gentle expression and encourages those in line to stay strong in times of extreme difficulty.
"You never know that one day we will be like them, or one day they will become our position," said Adchara Saravari, 33-year-old Secretary General of Issarachon . "So when we help these people in need, we never judge them. They are citizens just like us, and they should be able to get normal services."
Thailand now has more than 2.1 million COVID-19 cases and 21,000 deaths. Some would argue that when the Delta variant hit Bangkok, the government’s slow introduction of vaccines and lack of preparedness were directly attributable to the most severe case surge in July.
But Thais have an unusual way of solving problems-volunteering. This is all about taking care of the community, and this cultural creed helps explain why so many people in Thailand choose to volunteer as a way to combat the effects of COVID, rather than waiting for government help. "In Asia, we are all taught to take care of the next member of the family," said Tom Kruesopon, a well-known Thai entrepreneur. "We don't live in towns or cities, we live in communities."
At the beginning of last year, the COVID situation in Bangkok began to deteriorate so rapidly that hospital resources were exhausted. Then this summer’s delta epidemic led to the complete closure of the Thai capital, and strict blockades and restrictions were imposed. The hospital was completely overwhelmed. Concerns about the new Omicron variant are now rising again, but its impact in Thailand remains to be seen. When the death rate started to climb, volunteers from different backgrounds emerged to help people and save lives.
Adchara has been helping homeless residents in Bangkok for 10 years. That population has remained high, and under normal circumstances there are at least a few thousand people in the entire city. But now Adchara is witnessing a surge in numbers she has never seen before. "The number of homeless people in this area has doubled, from 300 to 600," Achara explained, as volunteers distribute food. “The numbers throughout Bangkok are also rising. And because of the COVID, temporary homeless people have now become full-time homeless people.” She estimates that there are at least 4,500 homeless people in the entire capital, but the number may be even higher. She said that many people who live on the street do not have ID cards, while others suffer from serious mental health problems.
A child approached the front of the line, clutching her mother's side tightly. "At least 5% of the population are children," Achara said. "So you can imagine the difficulty. They [parents] usually don't have ID cards, so they can't get health care services, no family members will help them, and some of them need to take care of their children. These [factors] are almost impossible to find a job." She said in Thailand The government has not done enough to support this disadvantaged group. When the pandemic started last year, the government provided small cash grants to low-income Thais, but she said that little has been done to treat the root causes of their problems, such as establishing an improved system to treat mental health problems or provide better Government subsidized housing.
"For a long time, we have been asking the government to [improve] the national welfare [system]," Achara said. They admitted that there was a problem, “but even if there is COVID, they never do anything,” she said, adding that when the virus hit Thailand, there was no practical plan to help those most in need. "So we come here every Tuesday to provide food," she said.
National Geographic has repeatedly asked the spokesperson of the Thai government for comment, but neither phone nor e-mail has been answered.
As the truck crossed the dark streets of Bangkok, Mamut Anusornweerachewin clung to his balance. He was one of the volunteers preparing for the back of the makeshift ambulance, while the driver was driving in the city's Tungsten Road that night in September. They are only a few minutes away from another victim of the Delta variant. With the brakes on, the driver parked the car next to a small house, and volunteers in full protective gear rushed out of the car. When I got home, it was already past nine o'clock in the evening. They entered quietly and found a man in his 50s paralyzed on the bed with difficulty breathing.
"Hello, how are you tonight? We are here to take care of you now," said Mamut, a 41-year-old former liar who became a volunteer paramedic. About 20 years ago, Mamut went to jail on drug trafficking charges. When he pleaded guilty, he escaped the death penalty but spent 15 years in prison. Four years after his release, he found out that he was the chief paramedic of Zendai, a Bangkok volunteer organization of dozens of people. The team began to check the man's vital signs and found that his oxygen content was dangerously low. Mamut signaled to the volunteer doctor who accompanied them to check the patient's condition that night.
"I think the virus has entered his lungs," the doctor told Mamut in an urgent tone. "We need to take him to the hospital now."
As early as July, every call was about life and death.
"Every time they are dying," Mamut said, explaining that on average they would see six patients per night. "Many of them are indeed dead. I already have someone dead in my arms."
Just three months ago, the Thai capital received such calls every night. At that time, Mamut's team dealt with at least 10 cases every night. Zendai was founded in April and has since helped tens of thousands of COVID-19 victims. The organization’s work has evolved from helping patients in isolation at home to finding beds for them, and now it has evolved to distribute antiviral drugs and conduct large-scale testing in the capital and other parts of the country. On those nights when he was out to take care of people in need, Mamut said he couldn't bear the thought of leaving anyone. He felt that the patients were imprisoned by the virus, and he wanted to release them. "It's like I'm dead in prison," Mahmut said. "Then someone came and gave me life again. So this is what I want to do for them. This is the best thing I have done after leaving those walls."
In the coastal town of Pattaya, a tourist city that has been hit hard by the economic impact of COVID-19, Aunchanaporn “Anna” Pilasuta has become an unlikely hero.
"I think everything in this world has an expiration date," the 40-year-old former sex worker said at the entrance of the "Pedestrian Street." The road was once crowded with tourists and the sound of nightlife buzzed.
Today, this street is completely quiet.
"How can you say that this country is open?" Anna asked, referring to the government's decision to fully open up vaccinated tourists in early October. She pointed to another long stretch of countless shabby bars.
"Now sex workers must change their way of living," Anna added.
As bars and restaurants close under the new restrictions, nail salons, market stalls and smoothie bars have sprung up. "A lot of sex workers have moved to these shops now. Some people are just waiting for customers on the beach. But that's not enough. The government hasn't done anything for us," Anna said.
In the past few years, Anna has provided important support to the town’s sex work community as a volunteer in the Service Workers Group (SWING), an organization located in Pattaya that provides health services and treatments and promotes human rights workers of all genders . Although prostitution is technically illegal, it has long been an important presence and tourist attraction.
Tourism is one of Thailand's main economic sectors, accounting for 6-7% of its GDP in 2020. Now some Thai sex workers are also forced to become homeless.
Crusoephant, who is close to the Thai Ministry of Public Health, said the government's failure was entirely due to complacency. "The problem is that Delta came too fast," Kruesopon said.
When the situation was at its worst in July, the country reported at least 20,000 COVID cases every day, with an average of 150-200 deaths every day. This is a significant increase compared to last year. Last year’s average daily number of cases was usually in the single digits, and deaths were rarely reported. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a Thai political scientist and famous intellectual. He has been analyzing what went wrong for most of the past year. He said that the government was not only negligent, but also deliberately incompetent. "In Thailand, it is not uncommon for complacency to become a curse," Titinan said. He agrees with Kruesopon's view that the government has done a good job in keeping the numbers low in 2020, but after officials put too much confidence in their ability to produce their own AstraZeneca vaccines, the numbers started to rise at the beginning of this year. They did not foresee that the Delta variant would cause an unusually severe blow to this country. "Then there was this kind of recovery in the case," Titinan said. "So they were stuck. AstraZeneca was not in preparation as they thought, and then Delta Air Lines caused serious damage. So complacency came back to haunt them." "The local people had to save themselves," He said. "The real heroes today are public health volunteers who work tirelessly to take care of their communities." Back in Bangkok, Achara continued to work hard to find solutions for the city's homeless residents. This will be a long-term struggle. "The government sees them as a failed cause," she said. "That's why even after the pandemic improves, we are still working to solve long-term problems."
Like other Thai volunteers, Adchara does not consider herself a hero. She only knows that the work must be done.
Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. all rights reserved