In Germany, Thai expats feel the pain of lockdown
Like many of the 80,000 Thais living in Germany, Nattaporn Wolf was worried when Covid-19 began spreading across the world. She has been monitoring news about the virus ever since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. After it reached Italy, just to the south of Germany, she began stocking up on necessities for her family – food, toiletries and medicines.
Nattaporn, who has been living in Germany for nearly 20 years, then developed the symptom that the whole world now dreads. She caught the cough during the cold weather of spring, when she left her house in a rural area outside Munich early each morning to jog. Her aim was to boost her immunity.
However, developing a cough during a pandemic is no joke. Her boss and friends immediately urged her to have it checked. But finding a doctor during a health crisis was no easy task, and when she did finally find one, a face-to-face appointment was not possible. Instead, she could only speak to him over the telephone. After a long series of detailed questions, the doctor concluded she did not have Covid-19, but he prescribed her medication that she had to go and collect from the clinic.
Again, Nattaporn was not allowed to enter the clinic. She rang the doorbell and waited. The assistant greeted her through the window and then dropped her medicines through the newspaper slot in the front door. There was absolutely no contact.
Nattaporn’s case might be extreme, but social-distancing measures are being obediently observed across the country. They are part of sweeping measures issued by Germany after the number of infections worldwide rose sharply to more than 60,000 cases with over 500 deaths.
The authorities urged people to work from home and avoid making any unnecessary trips. All concerts and events have been cancelled, while schools, kindergartens and creches are closed. Leisure venues like gyms, swimming pools, museums, bars and cinemas have also been shut down.
Only supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and medical services remain open. As in Thailand, restaurants and cafes are closed to eat-in customers and can only provide takeaways. Since March 22, all non-family gatherings of more than two people are prohibited. People have been told to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from each other when they venture outside.
In supermarkets, markings on the floor show shoppers how far away they must stand from the cashiers, while customers are encouraged to go cashless to avoid hand contact. Shops are also limiting the number of customers they let in to avoid congestion. Flour, sugar, rice, dry noodles and toilet paper are sometimes in short supply, though shops replenish the shelves when they can.
These measures will be in place at least until April 20 – roughly five weeks of nationwide lockdown.
Suchada Beyer runs the Thara Association, a group of Thai volunteers helping fellow Thais in Germany for nearly 30 years. She said the measures are crucial to prevent the healthcare system from being overloaded and to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus, but added they are undoubtedly increasing anxiety levels across the country.
“Stress levels are rising because people are stuck at home together for long periods. We often receive calls from Thai women who are stressed out from having to take care of their children 24/7, with husbands not being of much use,” she said, adding that Thara has given them contact numbers for state agencies they can call for assistance.
She explained that the lockdown was affecting some people more than others. “Families living in larger houses with gardens, where the children can go out to play, do not suffer as much as families who live in small spaces. Those with financial problems are suffering more. Equally important is how strong the relationship is between the husband and wife; this also plays a crucial role during this tough time.”
The constant cycle of news stories about the virus, especially from social media, can also cause a lot of stress, depression and sometimes even panic, she added.
Knowing that people are being bombarded with information about the pandemic, Suchada said Thara is taking pains to filter the news and only publish information from official sources on its Facebook and website.
Thai massage misery
Like other business owners, Nitnipa Exner suffered stress when the initial announcement of the measures was not clear.
“Almost all Thai massage parlours in Germany are registered as providing relaxation therapy rather than medical services. At first it was not clear if we were permitted to stay operating,” said Nitnipa, who opened her Thai massage parlour near Darmstadt, a town outside Frankfurt, nearly seven years ago.
While many similar spas chose to stay open so they could generate income, Nitnipa wanted to close her spa temporarily due to health concerns.
“Massage therapists have close and direct contact with customers. The Covid-19 virus is contagious even if the carrier doesn’t show any symptoms. Just asking the customer about their health before the massage doesn’t help. There’s no way this virus can be controlled if we continue offering massage services.”
However, she said, initially parlours could not close down because there were no clear government orders, so no compensation was available through their insurance policies or from government aid. The confusion was finally cleared up on March 22, when authorities announced massage shops were a non-essential service and had to be closed.
The government is offering immediate aid to small entrepreneurs, though not all will be eligible.
“In order to apply for this aid, business owners have to submit a lot of documents, and then it is up to the government to decide if the business really needs help,” Nitnipa said.
Nitnipa said she herself was not in a dire situation thanks to her well-prepared business model and financial plan. So, she is using the lockdown as a chance to consolidate and to complete a long-overdue renovation of her shop. “In every crisis there is an opportunity,” she said.
Meanwhile, Thais in Germany who want to return home suddenly face a barrier. From March 22, the Thai government began demanding that all Thai citizens present a “fit-to-fly” certificate along with a letter from the Thai embassy or consulate confirming they are Thai citizens.
Non-Thais, meanwhile, are required to show a health certificate confirming they have “no laboratory evidence of a Covid-19 infection” 72 hours prior to departure, as well as proof of overseas travel insurance with at least US$100,000 coverage.
The new rules sparked turmoil at Thai airports. Among those hit hardest are Thais returning from short holidays or visits to their relatives in Germany, said Pongsathon Chudasmita, acting Thai consul-general in Frankfurt.
“These people do not have a ‘Hausarzt’ [a local doctor assigned to them]. So, when they need a ‘fit-to-fly’ certificate, it is very difficult for them to find a doctor who is willing to see them at short notice,” Pongsathon said.
The Thai consulates-general in Frankfurt and Munich have now come up with a list of doctors willing to help Thais who are stranded in Germany by the new requirement. However, as this barrier lifted, another one fell – stranded Thais who booked with Thai Airways International now have to find another way home after the national carrier suspended all flights to and from Europe from April 1 to May 31.
By Sopaporn Kurz