This is the Thai’s government daily Covid update for May 20 2020 (2563 in Thai, since not only are they forward thinkers but they use the Buddhist calendar.)
Loose translation: On May 20, 2020, for a total population of almost 70 million people, Thailand had 3034 confirmed cases (+1 since the day before), 2888 recovered (+31 since the day before), 56 deaths (no change). The new case is a repatriated Thai citizen in state quarantine, like most new cases for weeks.
Per the European CDC, that brings Thailand to 44 confirmed cases per million, and 0.8 deaths per million. For comparison, the US has 4838 cases/million and 290 deaths/million. Sweden, (who never locked down) has 3249 cases/million and 389 deaths/million.
Steve and I spent the winter in Thailand. We were here when the pandemic exploded in Wuhan, when Thailand diagnosed the first case outside China, and when the world shut down. We weren’t yet ready to leave in March, then flights became scarce, until they disappeared. International flights to Thailand are closed until July. And it’s a long walk home.
The first sign that things were getting funky came in February: the Chinese tourists crowding the streets and malls disappeared almost overnight. All of a sudden, traffic started flowing, the restaurants turned quiet and the shops uncrowded. The locals loved it. Until the restaurants and shops started closing due to lack of business.
Then people started wearing face masks.
Ignorant, we thought. But, out of respect for the locals, we started wearing them too, even before the government made them mandatory.
Then came the Emergency Decree and the 10 to 4 curfew. Nonessential business, from malls to massage parlors, were closed, including all restaurants, public pools, and entertainment venues. That put the last nail in the coffin of tourism, and bankrupted many cash-poor businesses. Flights got cancelled, schools closed, city buses stopped.
But Thai being what they are – flexible, pragmatic, and funny – most non-essential businesses, from IT stores lo lingerie shops, made themselves essential overnight by offering face masks, safety glasses or hand sanitizer.
The biggest event of April is Songkran, the Thai New Year – an alcohol-fueled week-long street party celebrating rain. Passers-by shoot water guns and douse each other with water. Businesses sell ponchos, safety glasses and booze, and offer barrels and hoses with free water for refueling. Songkran is the time of wet t-shirts, phones wearing zipper bags, and drinking with wet strangers for young people of any age.
This year, Songkran was cancelled. To encourage compliance, the government declared a week-long alcohol ban making Thailand go dry. The ban was announced two days early, so everybody got to stock up, and the hospitals were notified to get ready for the inflow of new cases – not of Covid, but of alcohol withdrawal.
To encourage compliance, the government provided daily updates on the state of COVID, including summaries in English detailing the number and provenience of new cases and deaths, and insisting on social distancing, masks and hand hygiene. They organized field hospitals. They are now stockpiling Favipiravir, (Avigan) to prepare for the second wave.
But for now, they’re letting loose. After the number of new cases went down to single digits, the economy slowly restarted. Mom-and-pop shops, then small outdoor restaurants, now parks, malls, gyms and hairdressers. Still closed: Bars, cinemas, entertainment venues, muay-thai arenas, bull fighting, fish fighting, and massage parlors.
I expected the pent-up demand to explode everything into opening on day one, like a piñata. Not exactly. Businesses are taking their time. The famous Chiang Mai walking streets, always choking with food, shopping and entertainment, are empty. The Saturday Night Market street was a post-apocalyptic scene on Saturday night, empty but for the ghosts of Saturdays past.
Thai adopted the idea of social distancing. So much so that passers-by will give you ugly looks if you walk without a mask, restaurant owners will send you to wash your hands before serving you, people will wave you away rather than share an elevator, and bikers will wear a mask even when they don’t wear a helmet – both required by the law.
Most Thai support the closure of entertainment venues, even though many struggle: the bar-girls in Loh Kroh, the elephant sanctuaries, the massage parlors, the tuk-tuk drivers. The Phuket airport is closed. Drones patrol the Pattaya beaches, keeping sun worshippers away. Chiang Mai hasn’t had a new case in weeks, but our pool is still closed.
Even beyond the government’s requirements, the opening is slower than we, expats, would like. Very cautious too. Before allowing you in, malls check your temperature and take your phone number, for screening and tracing. Thankfully, they use forehead thermometers, otherwise we’d be hurting.
After a successful trial on mice, Thai researchers are testing a new vaccine on monkeys. Another step towards normal, even though the new normal won’t be like the old. That’s not all bad. If I had my say, the days of hugging and kissing casual strangers would be over. So would overcrowded highways, rat-sized cubicles, sardine-packed planes, air pollution and two hour commutes.
Thinking of you all. Missing you, and missing life as it used to be. Don’t know when we’ll be back, but we’re OK. I hope you are too.
Stay sane, stay safe, and see you on the other side.
Rada Jones is an ER doc in Upstate NY. She lives with her husband and his deaf black cat Paxil. She’s the author of three ER thrillers, Overdose, Mercy and Poison, and “Stay Away From My ER,” a collection of medical essays.