Local communities struggling to contain Covid-19 as the poor are hit hardest

“The rich get infected, the poor be damned” describes the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand, especially now that the disease, starting from the VVIP guests at luxury night clubs, has reached densely-populated communities in Bangkok.

A woman putting up her hand on the thermal sensor at the Covid-19 testing site on 27 April.

As a result of poor attempts at disease control by the government, economic and social capital have become major factors when individuals make life-changing decisions about the risk of infection and what to do if they get infected.

This inequality may decide who gets to live and who gets to die, if the infection situation continues to spiral downward.

The inequality seems to be more stark when the infection reaches communities in Bangkok like Khlong Toei and Nang Loeng.

Infection in slums with hundreds of thousands of residents

It took 3 days for Pramot, 18, a Khlong Toei resident who was tested positive for Covid-19 along with his housemate, to be taken by ambulance to a field hospital established in Nong Jok. Luckily, Pramot does not have any symptoms. However, his grandfather, Sompong, who lives 2 sois away, was very worried about the ambulance delay.

Well known for a long-time as a dense slum, Khlong Toei hosts a population of around 100,000 in its 43 communities. They somehow survived the previous waves of infection in 2020. But as of 4 May this year, 304 people have been tested positive with 193 of them coming from the dense slum area and 111 coming from the apartment area. (Source: Bangkokbiz news)

A part of Khlong Toei slum, lied quietly just less than 2 km from the capital's highly robust area.

The infection toll sprang in a quick rate from 65 people on last 28 April. The wide infection has made the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority started to deliver the vaccination in the community, starting on 4 May.

Living conditions at Khlong Toei, where extended families live in a single room, cramped, wall-to-wall houses make it difficult to properly abide by social distancing and quarantine protocols. On top of that, their precarious financial situation forces them to keep working, mostly in the service and heavy manual labour sectors, in order to put food on the table.

Prateep Ungsongtham Hata of the Duang Prateep Foundation based in Khlong Toei that has been working on improving livelihoods in the slums, said on 27 April that the disease has spread to every community. If the situation gets out of control, she worries that it will affect communities outside as Khlong Toei people work in jobs that involve contact with other people.

Prateep’s concern is shared among community leaders, local civil society organizations and the authorities. This led to one-time, large scale testing at Wat Saphan Phra Khanong and the 70 Rai community which can handle approximately 500 tests each. On 27 April, slum dwellers identified as at risk of infection came to register and undergo a swab test.

QR codes were given to each testee which will be used to deliver test results in two or three days. Those unable to access the internet had their phone numbers recorded for notification by phone.

Swab test was conducted to the testee at Wat Saphan Phra Khanong.

“We tried to gather people, and, if there is a PA system, which each community should have, get community leaders to use it or to use Line to invite residents to get onto Line for news announcements Or set up a walk-in centre for those who are not proficient in technology, but they have to wear masks, and use something to protect themselves.  There is alcohol gel for washing hands and the community should have Public Health Volunteers who will come together to help mobilize forces to stop the disease from spreading,” said Prateep.

Kuakun Paenchan, 48, a teacher in a private school, lives with her 2 daughters in Khlong Toei. According to her daughter, the house they are living in is not suitable for quarantine or social distancing at all. 

Somphong Thongpranit, 73, Pramot’s grandfather, said he lives with his granddaughter who works as a street sweeper. Despite having a 2-storey house, Sompong, who lives on the first floor, said it is impossible to practice social distancing as his granddaughter will have to go past him every time she enters or leaves the house.

In contrast, Sombat, a 26-year-old motorbike taxi rider who lives with another family member, has no problem in practicing social distancing and quarantine. However, the pandemic has severely affected his income as he now earns 2-300 baht per day, down from his regular 1,600-1,700 baht.

Temple returns favours to the people in hard times

Within the communities, local residents have joined to assist those who are under quarantine by cooking meals and delivering food and sanitizer. Some volunteers can be seen distributing food and boiling ginger water for those in quarantine.

People waiting in line at Wat Saphan Phra Khanong testing site.

“Damn it! We almost survived,” is the response to the new wave of infection from Phra Phisanthammanusit, the abbot of Wat Saphan. According to Prateep, the Khlong Toei community, along with civil society and the Department of Disease Control, had come up with the plan to handle the infection since the first wave. According to the plan, a 9-storey building in the temple will be used as a transit point where patients can rest and wait for an ambulance. 

Phisanthammanusit said the monks have welcomed the agreement to use the temple space. This is a time when the temple can return favours to the community who have supported the temple for so long. By bringing patients from unsatisfactory housing to the temple, he hopes that it will, in a way, reduce internal conflict.

“When this house is sick, next door will shun them. Sometimes five people live together and then one gets sick, the other 4 don’t know where to go. They will later get sick. The four that get sick, while they don’t know, they would go around outside. 

“Have you been to the community? The room is this wide (30-40 sq m), with 5 people living together. Think if one person gets sick, where will the other four live? And what if there is a bedridden grandma? Where will she be moved to? She then would get depressed about maybe infecting the kids. So we opened up this space and said ‘Oi, this one can’t stay home, afraid of infecting the child, then bring them here”, said the temple abbot.

No monks in the temple have been infected by Covid-19 because they adopted social distancing, cleaning themselves after walking out to receive alms and shortening the daily group prayers.

An old community persevering on its own

Meanwhile, Nang Loeng, an area of old communities in Pom Prap Sattru Phai District in inner Bangkok, does not receive as much outside assistance as Khlong Toei. The community had at least 6 people test positive as of 27 April. But much of the work still falls to community members.

The famous Nang Loeng Market has gone quiet in the afternoon (File photo).

Suwan Waewploingam, leader of Wat Kae Community, one of the five in Nang Loeng, said the infections this time are the most severe since the beginning. Most got infected from work. The community, along with a handful of the public health volunteers, have been taking care of the situation. Those who have fever will be asked to stay at home and sent to take a test if other symptoms show up.

Still, the community cannot handle all the problems by itself. Suwan gave the example of a drug-addict who is at risk of contacting others and she still cannot get him to take a test or quarantine. The authorities did not do much to help them.

“It is past the point of concern. Frankly speaking, the market is made by us. The Crown Property Bureau (the major landowner in Nang Loeng) has not come to take care of this. The community leaders had to buy a temperature scanner on their own, make the barrier ropes on their own, write “Do not enter” signs on their own. All on our own, no one from the government at all.

On the bright side, Nang Loeng is much smaller than Khlong Toei, with about 333 houses in total. Residents also know each other as they have been living together for a long time. The community is also famous for its market where some of the shops are still able to help with what the leaders ask for, like food and water.

Suwan is still concerned about how difficult it is to access help from the authorities. There are people in the community who do not abide by the health measures and those who do not provide a proper timeline. Also, reimbursement of the community budget from Pom Prap Sattru Phai District is hard. When the community wants to use the budget to buy food, they will be asked to write a receipt pretending to buy other materials, which she does not want to do.

The matter of helping the community still does not answer the core issues of the problem: vaccination in the long run and monetary assistance in the short run. 

Kuakun said the vaccinations should be fast and with quality. There are many elderly in the community that do not know about the vaccine’s side effects.

Prateep said that financial aid is needed for those who stay in quarantine as they cannot make money from working.

“There are many people and we do not know if they are infected or not.  I am concerned about infants living in the same house.  Now there are 3 infected children.  Today they are testing and and we may find bigger numbers.  I am worried that some of the infected people have no income. They have to go out to work. Nobody would want to starve to death. When they go out to work is when they will spread the disease.

“What to do?  The government mustn’t distribute the money here and there. Bring it and distribute it here. Give it to those infected and their families, stop them spreading the infection first”, said Prateep.


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