Shocking stories from the streets, a rented room, taxi and even a temple tell us about a crisis and suffering that is more stark and real than that seen in western countries as ordinary people try to carry on in the face of economic collapse, certainly for them and a wider array of people as the situation drags on. Of course, it’s not just in Thailand but also everywhere in Asia where questions are being asked but, for Thailand, the situation is most acute as the pandemic landed on a country already burdened with many other problems that had been covered up for far too long by an informal black economy, a huge foreign tourism industry and a thriving export sector.

Thailand is in a state of crisis. Stories last week of people dying on the streets to a taxi suicide and two young girls waking up in Samut Prakan near Bangkok on Monday morning to find their mother dead beside their mattress bed tells us all we need to know before we study the economic data or we watch the political drama play out in parliament, on the media or indeed on the streets. A married woman who deserted her elderly father at a temple in Nakhon Ratchasima, this Sunday, also tells us that the damage being done is drilling deep and may be permanent.

Scenes from this week in Samut Prakan where two girls, 11-year-old Samaporn Samwongsa and 9-year-old Tanyaporn Samwongsa were placed in local authority care as an appeal went out to locate family relations after they were found next to their 44-year-old dead mother Apaporn Suntarachon in a rented room in the Bang Phli district of Samut Prakan near Bangkok. They both tested positive for COVID-19. (Top centre) Rescue workers assist an 80-year-old man on Tuesday morning who had been left at a temple in Nakhon Ratchasima by his married daughter on Sunday last. The man also tested positive for COVID-19. (Bottom Centre) The body of Ms Apaporn being removed on Monday. (Bottom right) The body of a 53-year-old Bangkok taxi driver, Chamnian Chaisawan, is removed from his taxi after he killed himself on Sunday.

The devastation caused by COVID-19 during this latest wave of the virus, driven by the Delta variant since mid-June, is beginning to be seen in harrowing stories in the last week from bodies being found on the street to tragic stories emerging from the provinces that currently are in the grip of a rising toll of infections and death.

While Thailand is not the only country to experience such waves, its imbalanced economy, without social welfare support and heavily dependent on exports and tourism, has been ripped apart by the pandemic while the limited nature of government support to the less well off is being exposed daily as the country experiences unprecedented case numbers.

Country’s economic prospects are dribbling away after last year’s record contraction of 6.1% of GDP

Thailand, after experiencing a 6.1% contraction in 2020, also saw its GDP contract by 2.6% in the first quarter of 2021.

The country’s economic prospects are dribbling away quickly with disruption to the domestic economy in Bangkok and adjacent provinces while the long-anticipated reopening of Thailand to foreign tourism begins to look shaky as the virus surge now threatens the future of the key pilot project in Phuket, the Phuket Sandbox.

However, the human stories behind this public health and economic emergency tell us all we need to know about a country whose purse strings are controlled by a small elite with minimal support to the less well off or those who are vulnerable.

Rise of Asia is no longer assured, certainly, Thailand’s is being questioned with a louder and louder voice

Such an economic approach has its merits and in fact, is the basis for the rise of Asia as an economic power in the last three decades.

However, after this pandemic and even beginning with the US-China trade war, there have been question marks about this course, questions that are growing louder every day because of the pandemic and the differences concerning how people in the East and West have fared.

As we speak, there are many countries in the West still suffering the third wave of the virus but western economies are recovering.

More importantly, ordinary people and workers have never had so much available cash or liquidity due to liberal and well-targeted government investment in Europe and the United States.

A combination of working from home and widely available full income support during lockdowns means that money has been saved in the bank by many while small business owners in countries like France, the United Kingdom and Germany have found their business concerns secure.

Many openly admit that they have managed to increase their capital while shut due to generous government payouts every month.

Thailand’s outlook amid the pandemic is stark and shocking as the recovery timeframe is extended

Not so in Asia, certainly not so in Thailand where the consequences are stark, loud, very visible and indeed shocking.

The date for Thailand’s economic recovery keeps extending itself while its small business players continuously hit the wall as their meagre reserves are used up. For most, there is no way back except the prospect of facing their creditors.

And it’s not just the small players.

In recent days, Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth of the Airlines Association of Thailand (AAT) warned the government if ฿5 billion in soft loans promised since last year is not quickly made available to Thailand’s domestic airline industry, up to 20,000 jobs will go with the danger some high profile collapses.

‘We’ve been waiting for a soft loan for 478 days despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to helping us on August 28th, 2020. Every airline has faced incurring losses since the borders shut down early last year. If we cannot get help within a month, more of us may have to downsize or be unable to keep the business alive anymore,’ he said.

The scale of the crisis could be seen on Tuesday as officials of the State Railway of Thailand in association with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, announced that they were using 15 railway sleepers at Bang Sue Grand Station in Bangkok as an isolation facility for up to 240 COVID-19 patients seeking hospital beds.

The news comes as the state railway agency postponed construction projects on the Thai China high-speed rail links because of public health measures to restrict the movement of people including labour.

It comes a week after bodies were found on the streets of Bangkok and even then, were left lying for up to 12 hours before being recovered by overworked ambulance services with some personnel left in tears.

Mother with 2 daughters in a rented room, she had been vomiting and coughing blood before they woke up to find her dead, both tested positive for COVID

It was reported on Monday that an ambulance crew had recovered the body of a 44-year-old woman named Apaporn Suntarachon, the sole carer and provider for her two young daughters.

The mother was found by the pair after waking up from their sleep. She was dead.

The woman was found beside the mattress bed she shared with her girls in a rented room in the Bang Phli district of Samut Prakan.

Ms Apaporn, reportedly, had been sick for several days and was experiencing breathing difficulties while also coughing up blood and vomiting. 

Responders administered two swift antigen tests on 11-year-old Samaporn Samwongsa and 9-year-old Tanyaporn Samwongsa at the location where their mother was found.

The girls tested positive for the COVID-19 virus although there is no word yet on whether the girl’s mother tested positive for the disease from authorities.

Taxi driver who went to sleep in the capital

Earlier on Monday morning, also near Bangkok in the Nong Chok district of the capital city near Lam Pla Rot Canal, a resident noticed a ubiquitous yellow and green taxi parked in a secluded spot near the motorway used regularly by drivers as a place to nap at 8 am.

The plight of Thailand’s taxi drivers has, for decades now, been commented upon by the media.

Some drivers must work long hours to pay for rented cars at a daily rate, often resorting to stimulants to work longer hours while falling into debt. The lucky ones, who own their own car, make a decent living but still have to work hard.

Nearly all provide a good service to the public.

In normal times, the system produces an environment where a cheap taxi can always be found anywhere in Bangkok within minutes.

Local merchant knocked three or four times but then the brazier in the back of the car confirmed his fears

On Monday morning, the parked car caused the neighbour and local street merchant some concern since he had noticed it pulling up at 9 pm the night before which was not unusual but this was.

As he approached the car, he saw the windows were cloudy but he could define a man reclining in the front seat. He knocked several times but there was no response.

He then clearly noticed a brazier located in the back seat area which confirmed his worst suspicions.

The local man quickly alerted the emergency services and the police who arrived with medics and a rescue team.

53-year-old took his own life, he could not pay his taxi rent with no customers and mounting debts

Police Captain Narongrit Chanong of Lam Phak Chi Police Station secured the scene and arranged for the doors of the car to be opened carefully while others were kept back at a distance.

The taxi driver, 53-year-old Chamnian Chaisawan, had killed himself quietly on Sunday night by taking his sleep. He left a kind suicide note for his family apologising for what he had done and thanking them and all his friends for their support.

The middle-aged man had been renting a taxi on a daily basis while also living in a rented room in Bangkok and simply could not find his way forward financially.

He was also burdened by personal debt and was facing intimidation from ‘bullies’ because of his failure to pay up.

Self-effacing and warm note asking for forgiveness from family and friends for his decision to take his life

The self-effacing note urged his son to make sure to always love and care for his wife and family.

His close friend, Sanan Sengda, who was the same age as the deceased man, had met him on Sunday at 6 pm when he handed over the taxi to him for the last time.

He said his friend had complained of having no customers at all as he did his rounds on the outskirts of Bangkok during the current lockdown.

He also found that the nighttime curfew from 9 pm to 4 am meant that from 8 pm onwards there was no prospect of any further business.

Hopes that numbers in Bangkok may taper off but the economic impact will be severe warns central bank

The crisis in Thailand comes as the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has claimed, in recent days, that the numbers in Bangkok are levelling off but the numbers in the other provinces of the country outside the red zone of infection are beginning to climb.

Senior executives at the Bank of Thailand are warning that the current lockdown in Bangkok and twelve other provinces, accounting for over 50% of the economy, this month, will have a serious effect on the domestic economy in the third quarter of the year.

The once-thriving black market or informal sector, estimated to be at least 55% of domestic economic activity and made up of millions of small-time entrepreneurs, has been dealt a killer blow by this ongoing crisis with many of the players, a majority of whom are women and middle-aged, put out of business.

World Bank predicted recently that 99% of the foreign tourism industry will be wiped out for 2021 compared to 2019, it could be even worse than this

Prospects for the fourth quarter are also now dimming with the World Bank predicting only 600,000 visitors to Thailand in 2021 or 1.5% of what was achieved in 2019 but even this figure is now seriously in doubt.

This figure could be significantly less than 1% of 2019’s levels as it has been all year so far.

Nonetheless, the Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn insists the kingdom can achieve 1 million foreign tourists this year, down from his earlier revised figure of 3 million visitors.

In early March, he was insisting that Thailand would see 6.5 million visitors while in February he touted vaccines and vaccine passports as the key to Thailand having 10 million visitors in 2021.

Tourism boss says third-quarter may even see less foreign tourists enter Thailand than in January
Refloat of foreign tourism in the 2nd half of 2021 with vaccines pushed by minister and industry for the sector

In fairness, no one could have accurately predicted the trajectory of this pandemic and the economic fallout and the scale of the suffering it would continue to cause the less well off in Thailand at the beginning of 2021 after the year before.

More damage this year to both domestic and foreign tourism industry than in 2020, huge financial losses 

Either way, it looks like a wipeout for the foreign tourism industry from 2019 has been achieved.

This will see at least a 97.5% reduction based on Mr Yuthasak’s numbers but, increasingly, most experts suggest it could be higher than 99% with even greater damage this year caused to the domestic tourism industry. 

This means a loss to Thailand for this year of at least ฿2 trillion in cash.

This is money that normally feeds into the tourism industry which is recognised by economic experts as a highly effective means of channelling money to the grassroots economy.

Elderly man dumped by his married daughter at a Buddhist temple in Nakhon Ratchasima

On Tuesday, many in Thailand were shocked and appalled to hear the story of an 80-year-old father who was left behind at a temple in the Bua Lai district of Nakhon Ratchasima province by his married daughter and her husband on Sunday who dropped him there and later drove off.

The man had only his pants and a shirt as well as a cloth bag.

The story was revealed by the abbot of the Wat Pa Suan Thamma Sawaddee, Luang Phor Sitthichai, who said the elderly and frail man appeared to wish to stay with him and had come from Khon Kaen province.

80-year-old man found collapsed on a walkway in a dishevelled state, taken to Khon Kaen hospital

Then, on Tuesday, the man wandered from the temple grounds and was later found on a nearby walkway lying on the ground in the rain in a dishevelled state.

Such behaviour is anathema to most Thais who value family and especially revere their parents under any and all economic circumstances.

It is indeed the glue that holds Thailand together and has previously made it so resilient as a nation to economic and external adversity.

The elderly man was later confirmed as being infected with the COVID-19 virus.

The temple called emergency services and the man was taken to hospital in Khon Kaen province while monks and other attendants at the temple were isolated on the instructions of public health officials.

Government facing rising public debt and lower tax revenues, forced to run the gauntlet while trying to keep the economy open and pursue a vaccination plan

In the meantime the government, facing a steep decline in tax receipts and rising public sector debt, is limited in its ability to respond to the latest and most severe wave of the crisis.

Support measures announced have been far more restricted, less generous and harder to access than was the case in 2020 as the government tries to run the gauntlet in fighting against the virus wave and trying to keep the economy as open as possible while progressing the vaccination drive.

Up to the 23rd July, 5.3% of the population had been fully vaccinated while 17.4% had received at least one dose with 15.7 million doses administered.

Talk of a return of Thaksin Shinawatra but the public mood is one of shell shock at the extended and serious nature of the unfolding crisis before it

Despite plans by the opposition, which is pressing in parliament to censure the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, online outpourings and even talk of a return by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the mood of the Thai public is one of shock at the extended nature of this crisis that has been causing severe hardship now to millions since early last year and has considerably worsened this year.

Even before the pandemic struck, Thailand was experiencing economic challenges including rising household debt, an ageing population and, at the time, a curb on exports caused by the US-China trade war and an overvalued Thai baht.

Thailand certainly is witnessing change but this should not be construed as positive in any way

In 2019, the Thai economy only grew by 2.4% followed by last year’s sharp contraction and possibly negligible growth or even a possible contraction this year, something that cannot be written off at this point as the downside risk is still rising.

However, there is also the question of the permanent damage or change caused by this pandemic to Thailand.

Often portrayed by more enthusiastic government PR people as a new opportunity for Thailand, a chance for renewal or a ‘greener’ economy, there is nothing in the all too real and numerous stories of suffering and heartbreak we now see that can be construed as positive.

There is, however, every basis to argue that the present circumstances call out for a more balanced, caring and fairer Thailand not just as an aspiration or a PR line but with a working economic model and long term plan also on this basis.

That is the change that Thailand needs but it requires both vision and effective leadership.

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