Suicides and deaths driven by people suffering economic hardship have just begun to spike in Thailand as the government and PM Prayuth Chan ocha carefully weighs up whether to ease restrictions this week that have put 27 million out of work. Thailand and other countries in the world have only begun to grapple with the disaster that is Covid 19 as the economic consequences begin to kick in. The Thai government, like others, is caught between a rock and a hard place between certain economic ruin if the economy is not reopened and a virus that is coming back in waves.
A team of researchers at Chiang Mai and Chulalongkorn Universities are warning that deaths in Thailand directly attributable to the government lock down necessary to protect the country from the deadly coronavirus may well exceed those from Covid 19 as the country sees a spike in recorded suicides and deaths caused by the rash actions of those driven to despair by circumstances. Up to Tuesday, April 21st, they attributed 38 suicides alone to the lockdown. 92% of these were self-employed businesspeople among the almost 27 million Thais who have been cut off from their livelihoods since restrictions were introduced in Thailand at the end of March or the beginning of April. The government is stressing the need for caution before the local economy can be reopened again and is right to be wary as medical experts argue that a second or even third wave is likely as this virus, while it may have levelled off as a health threat, has only just begun its devastation as an economic one.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha said this weekend that while the government had flattened the curve of the virus infection, it would not let its guard down and the health threat from the virus would be the key factor in deciding how and when to ease both personal and economic restrictions.
So far, the kingdom has lost 51 lives to the invisible enemy and on the face of it, the number looks relatively good compared to other countries.
Nonetheless, any perceived victory for the ministry may well be a pyrrhic one given the nature of the economic loss now bearing down.
Wife, mother, businesswoman found dead next to her crying baby by police in Samut Songkhram
On Wednesday, in Samut Songkhram, on the Gulf of Thailand, just southwest of Bangkok, police found Yupaporn Poonpipit, a 36-year-old woman and trader before the lockdown dead, at her home.
She was found lying on the ground with her crying baby beside her. She had been shot once in the head.
In her hand, she was still clutching ฿700 which she had refused to give to her husband, 35-year-old Winai Maila-or to purchase alcohol. He shot her for it and then drove off in a panic.
Mr Winai, until the virus shutdown, was also her business partner. The two ran a small trading concern which shut in early April due to the virus lockdown.
He shot her in the head with a .11 revolver leaving the spent bullet cartridge on the ground. Two lives ended and a child effectively orphaned, because of this lockdown.
At least 27 million people with limited savings have been cut off from their livelihoods due to the virus
In the last 4 weeks, it is estimated that 27 million people have lost their livelihoods in Thailand in a series of successful measures which went into place to stop this virus spreading.
The measures were ordered by the Covid 19 centre in Bangkok as well as provincial authorities throughout Thailand under the state of emergency. They came at a time when infections and numbers of those dying from the virus were beginning to rise strikingly.
Explains a lot about the Thai economy
The crisis has thrown into stark relief and most perilously, two significant hallmarks of Thailand’s economy.
One is the huge grey market or informal sector thought to be over 55% of GDP and the other is the relative little most people have in reserve funds or savings.
This is despite ฿12 trillion being held on deposit in Thai banks.
Police last week intercepted a mother about to throw her baby into the river in Bangkok after losing hope
Last week, police were called onto a bridge in Bangkok by a distressed passerby. They arrived in the nick of time to prevent a woman from throwing her toddler little girl into the water below.
Her husband, a delivery driver, had left her after she had lost her job and she had no idea how she was going to care for the infant.
A subsequent online appeal raised ฿120,000 for the woman who promised police not to consider such an act again.
Even when reopened, 10 million jobs will have been lost with a second or third wave still threatened
The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce has estimated that by June, even with a reopening of the economy, 10 million Thai people will be left out of work while the government will still be facing a second or even third wave.
The country’s tourism industry will effectively be shut until the latter part of the year at the earliest.
Tourism industry will not be back until the end of the year at the earliest- western world is in a depression
The latest news from China is that the tourism market to Thailand will not reopen in July and August as indicated because of growing concerns stoked by reports of a second wave in that country.
Similar reports from Europe and the US this week suggested that western holidaymakers are only considering, for now, end of year getaways.
All of this, of course, is still in a vacuum as this virus threatens the world with economic depression even without financial aftershocks which we can count on in the coming weeks.
Even if the situation can be brought under control, the UK government has already forecast a 13% contraction in its economy for 2020, the sort of figure not seen since the 1930s.
Thai account holders have ฿12 trillion but 92% of that is controlled by 10% of account holders
A groundbreaking report at the end of last year by the PueyUngphakorn Institute for Economic Research identified that while Thai bank accounts had ฿12 trillion in deposits, ฿11 trillion of this belonged to only 10% of bank account holders.
The survey showed that over 33% of bank account holders had less than ฿500 in their accounts.
In the last few weeks, another survey had indicated that most Thai people have access to funds to cover a maximum of one month of expenses to get by.
Simply put, a huge proportion of formerly employed Thai workers are now at their limit.
24 million people applied for a scheme with an initial budget for 4 million later revised upwards
The first indication of this was when over 24 million people applied for a programme of financial support on offer by the Thai government in its initial ‘no one left behind’ philosophy which was projected to cover 4 million people who were self-employed or informal workers.
Subsequently, that has been increased in various moves to 9 million but there are persistent reports of difficulties encountered by the public gaining access to benefits.
This has already seen protests at the Ministry of Finance and several suicides directly linked with rejection for the programme.
Suicides in Thailand due to the Covid 19 emergency being examined by an academic research group
Police in Bangkok reported another suicide at 8.30 am at an apartment building in Ramkhamhaeng on Friday. A man between 40 to 45 years old jumped from the 31st-floor landing on the 6th floor.
Investigations suggest that the man was suffering from stress caused by the lockdown. It is one of many reported by police throughout Thailand in recent weeks attributable to the coronavirus situation.
This has led to a team of academics examining the suicide trend and attempting to differentiate those directly caused by the Covid 19 emergency to assess the human cost of the government’s lockdown measures.
Problem is growing more acute as time passes
The problem, of course, is becoming more acute as time passes.
The team of academics based at Chiang Mai and Chulalongkorn University have been tracking cases of lockdown suicides since early April
Up to Tuesday, April 21st, they had identified 38 suicides, 27 of them men and 11 women due to circumstances brought about by the emergency and the growing economic crisis.
The longer it goes on, the more economic damage, researchers warn more could die due to economic consequences than the virus
The problem is that as the lockdown period extends, its effects are more damaging to such an extent that the researchers believe that this could lead to more deaths from suicide linked with the government’s restrictions than the virus itself.
Currently, 51 people have succumbed to the virus in Thailand.
The research team includes Atthajak Sattayanurak of Chiang Mai University, Associate Professor Somchai Preechasilpakul at Chiang Mai University and Prapas Pintobtaeng who teaches political science at Chulalongkorn University.
Prime Minister and the government aware of the dichotomy and twin challenge they face
The government will be keenly aware of this dichotomy. While warning at the end of the week that the government would be dictated by health considerations, the prime minister also reminded the press that the ministry was attuned to the economic hardship being generated.
General Prayuth indicated that where restrictions might be removed other measures may have to be deployed to guard against the health threat that still exists.
Government’s concern about a second wave of infection from the Covid 19 virus well-founded
This concern is well-founded. Experts have repeatedly warned of a second wave and we have seen this already in Japan and Singapore.
The next wave may perhaps see Thailand suffering to a far greater magnitude. All it would take is one serious cluster of infection to get out of control or if border restrictions are eased, a stronger variant of this tricky and deceptively lethal virus to land in Thailand.
This Covid 19 virus has officially taken over 200,000 lives although US intelligence services suggest the figures may yet prove far higher in China than that being disclosed by Communist Party authorities.
Market and small business owners will be forever changed by this lockdown with a ‘new normal’
The other worrying issue is that the reopening of the economy may not see business immediately getting back to normal let alone seeing a boost due to ‘pent up demand’.
There is strong evidence to suggest that the shutdown will alter the market for all businesses in Thailand and tourism prospects.
Fewer flight connections, higher airfares, a lower pattern of expenditure and restrictions on trade will all be part of this ‘new normal’ being suggested by government officials.
There will also be a surge of bankruptcies all over the world including some large and well-known firms that will lead to higher prices and a reduction in competition. Higher unemployment will inevitably depress demand.
The World Bank has already warned Thai economic planners that this virus will remove many of the small traders who worked for comparatively little providing valuable services to the public.
Among the 38 suicides recorded by the academic group from Chiang Mai and Chulalongkorn Universities only to Tuesday, April 21st, 35 were informal self-employed people. That is over 92%.
Research team highly critical of the government’s economic response to the crisis for those in need
The research team has described the government’s response as lopsided in that insufficient care has been taken to balance out the very real economic consequences of the virus control measures and their impact on the physical and mental health of the population.
‘While the government holds daily press briefings on the Covid-19 situation and mobilises resources to slow the spread of the virus, it fails to address the (damage caused to people’s livelihoods) due to the restrictions,’ the research group observed.
It felt more consideration should have been given to the hardship caused to people and a stronger effort made to make sure people had access to financial support.
‘Suicide cases indicate the government’s gross failure in handling the situation,’ the academic team concluded. ‘Some people were driven to take their own lives. In several cases, delay and inefficiency in the 5,000-baht cash handout scheme was the cause of suicides.’
Thai public most worried about the overall health of the Thai economy even more than the virus
A Suan Dusit Poll in association with Mahidol University published on Sunday in the Bangkok Post showed that over 93% of people were most worried about the overall Thai economy while just over 86% were concerned about contracting the virus.
The survey shows that the public is keenly attuned to the strong economic risk posed by this virus and the government’s response to defeat it which will see Thailand’s government put to the pin of its collar borrowing up to ฿1 trillion to fund a ฿1.9 trillion package of supports for the bond market, loans to small business and ฿1 trillion in extended income supports.
42-year-old man in Udon Thani committed suicide on Tuesday after being rejected for support payments
On Thursday, a 42-year old Thai man who ran a small eatery business, was found hanged after being rejected for assistance under the government’s financial scheme online.
Supasit Chaokla was a divorced man whose priority in life was taking care of his 15-year-old daughter.
His small business cost between ฿500 and ฿600 a day to run but because of this lockdown, his income had dwindled to approximately half that leaving him at a loss every day while serving his customers.
He was unable to fund his daughter’s next term in school. The deceased man’s mother, 62-year-old Jiamsri Chaokla, explained his circumstances to the press this week.
Her son is believed to have hanged himself on Tuesday, April 21st at around 8 pm.
He had been counting on the ฿5,000 monthly support payment to help him survive the crisis and could not take the blow after his application was rejected.
Good-hearted people supplying free food is not a sustainable solution but one very badly needed
So far, five weeks into the lockdown, as suicides grow, we are seeing people survive on the good-hearted efforts of businesses and individuals throughout the country.
While this has been splendid and initially heartwarming, it is simply not feasible for much longer.
Yet without such actions, the situation throughout Thailand in recent weeks may have been simply impossible.
On the streets of Bangkok this week, the Metropolitan Police had to intervene as queues for free food turned ugly with people openly brawling over access and their place in the queue.
Bangkok police chief had to issue a warning as with other police forces in the kingdom
The Chief of the Metropolitan Police, Lieutenant General Phukphong Phongpetra, issued a statement warning all those involved to be aware of the need for social distancing and efforts to prevent the virus spread.
Other events throughout Thailand have had to be closed down by police with food later being distributed to housing projects.
Restrictions must be eased even as the threat remains, the only answer is mass vaccination
It should be clear to everyone that the ability of Thailand as in other countries, to live under such restrictions is limited. This is a difficult challenge for those in government as the scale and impact of this virus is still growing even as the health figures improve.
The only solution for Thailand and the world right now is a mass-produced and widely available vaccine. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday that an update on this will take until sometime in July as Thailand’s National Vaccine Institute begins work on its own project to find a solution for the kingdom.
Clinical trials began this week worldwide. The Oxford Vaccine Group in the UK has said it is 80% confident that its vaccine will be successful and that 1 million doses of its vaccine will be available by September. It is joined by scientists in Germany, the United States and China who are looking for an effective vaccine that been scaled up easily into mass production across the world.
Unfortunately, these hopeful reports have been joined by increasing concern that immunity to the disease may be difficult to attain or prove.
This is coupled with the discovery with more strains or variations of the coronavirus.
Everything about this virus since the start of the year has been unpredictable and a surprise, a deeply unpleasant one at that.