Expats in Thailand feeling the pinch (and pleasure) of lockdown

An unusual sight of Bangkok.

As the deadly Covid-19 virus creeps through Bangkok’s streets, the city’s expatriate population has reason to be feeling extra nervous.

The attacks began in early March when Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul blasted “ai farang” (bloody Caucasians) for not wearing face masks, adding offenders “should be kicked out of Thailand”. A few days later a Twitter account registered to his name doubled down, criticising “dirty” unmasked Westerners who were “more likely to spread the disease than Asians”.

The account was hastily deleted but the message was loud and xenophobic – and also ran counter to World Health Organisation advice at the time. The global body declared that, to prevent shortages, masks should only be worn by Covid-19 sufferers and medics, and that good hand hygiene was the best defence against the virus. Thai hospitals were indeed complaining of mask shortages at the time.

Expat forums lit up with complaints that farang were being singled out in public for not wearing masks. A western diplomat told Thai PBS World that he was shouted at by an armed sentry for leaving his face uncovered as he strolled passed a Bangkok barracks.

Yet not all expats were comfortable with the bare-faced look being advocated by the WHO and Western media.

“As a farang, I’m embarrassed that while almost every Thai is responsibly wearing a face mask, many foreigners aren’t,” said Alan Simon, a retired software developer living in Bangkok.

“I don’t know if it’s ignorance or complacency, but I fear the toll is going to surge soon. I’m in a high-risk age group so I’m definitely not taking any chances,” the 61-year-old Australian added.

The mask controversy was eventually solved not by Anutin’s ranting, but by hygiene policies implemented by shops and supermarkets, which forced every shopper to cover up.

Yet as the daily count of Covid-19 cases mounted, foreigners in Thailand were facing more serious problems than a health minister’s prejudice.

Immigration offices around the country were packed with expats and tourists desperate to extend their visas or meet the 90-day-report requirement, so as not to fall foul of the law.

Popular expat blogger Richard Barrow echoed the frustration of many foreigners who were being forced to herd together at a time when Covid-19 was spreading at a rate of more than 100 cases a day.

“Will this madness ever end? We are in the middle of a global pandemic and the Immigration Bureau are still insisting for stranded tourists and expats to jump through hoops to extend their stay,” said Barrow in an April 1 post, citing Trat Immigration’s list that required expats to “take the house owner with you for interrogation”.

On the same day, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed action after hearing that hundreds were queuing in long lines outside immigration offices from 5am. The government announced it would approve automatic extensions for tourists until June in order to lower the health risk for both immigration staff and foreigners – though holders of other visas will still have to brave crowds to get extensions.

Immigration offices apart, Bangkok – the city that never sleeps – has gone into deep hibernation. The “soft” lockdown started on March 18 with the closure of all schools, universities, bars and leisure venues. Malls and dine-in restaurants were added to the list on March 22, before the lockdown became a full-blown night curfew on April 3 as Covid-19 cases in the capital continued to rise.

The enforced confinement has affected Bangkok’s estimated 100,000 to 200,000 international residents (no accurate figures are available) in different ways.

Pratiksha Ghosh, 19, arrived from India to study at an international university in the city last September. She quickly made friends at college and adjusted to her new routine of bus rides back and forth for lectures. But lockdown has brought dramatic changes to her life – not all of them negative. Like university students across the country, she now logs on for lectures online.

“I miss joking with my friends in class and eating Thai food in the uni cafes,” grins Ghosh, a first-year architecture student. “But the lectures online are actually more productive, because we [the students] have fewer distractions.”

Her classmates agree, though Angela who lives near campus complains the food shops close very early, “so we have to buy our meals very fast”, while Baze says “there’s nowhere we can go to have beers to unwind anymore”.

Thai and international schools across the country are using Google Meetings, Line and similar platforms to tutor their students at home.

Tamara, an American head teacher at a leading Bangkok school, agrees the online conferencing tools are proving effective as replacements for real classrooms. But she says primary school pupils are missing out on education under the lockdown because they often don’t have access to computers.

“Life in lockdown is no hardship for my son and I because we are introverts, usually at home, in our own rooms, doing stuff online,” she says.

The internet was a common thread running through the conversations of every expat contacted for this article ­– providing news and entertainment, as well as a lifeline to friends in Thailand and back home.

Daisy Mendiola, a business consultant and university lecturer, has even managed to keep her busy expat social life going via her computer screen.

“We agree to meet online, even put make up and dress up. We drink together and toast each other virtually, in a group chat. Being innovative it the key!” says the 60-year-old Filipina from her flat in the southeast of the city.

At a time when restaurants are only open for takeaways and going to the supermarket can be a game of chance, busy mothers like Tamara rely on technology and farang-friendly apps like Grab and Foodpanda to put food on their table.

The safety and convenience come at a price though.

“My food budget has increased because things cost more or cost for delivery,” says Tamara, echoing a big complaint of Thais and foreigners alike under lockdown.

Another is the temptation to binge-eat and drink as a way of getting through the long stretches of enforced idleness at home.

“Not good for your liver or waistline,” quips an Australian manager, 41, who lives in the Asok area and admits her consumption of food and alcohol is on the rise. It doesn’t help, she adds, that gyms and parks have been closed.

However, despite reports that panic-shoppers had stripped eggs and other items from Bangkok shelves, none of the expats we spoke to have had trouble finding food under this state of emergency.

Shortages of a different kind are blighting the life of Amanda Chou. The Taiwanese owner of a Bangkok-based business that makes chemicals for the car industry complains her supplies from Thai factories in lockdown have slowed down, and with her buyers in Europe still in limbo, she has little work for her staff to do.

Despite their different experiences, one thing unites the different expats featured in this report. All agree strongly with the lockdown measures Thailand has taken so far to contain Covid-19.

“I think Thailand learnt from SARS and Avian flu before, and has had some experience with this kind of situation,” says Tamara.

“I am pro-lockdown because we need to keep the virus levels low to avoid a high rate of transmission.”

However, not everybody is keen on a 24-hour curfew, because even though “the skies are bluer and the pungent smell of carbon monoxide has gone”, says Daisy, she’s hoping “life won’t come to a standstill”.


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