While Thailand managed to avoid the brunt of COVID-19 cases last year–including a 200-day stretch with 0 cases–this year, Thailand has been hit much harder. Strict lockdowns and border closures kept case numbers low in 2020. COVID’s second wave hit migrant worker communities outside Bangkok in January 2021, but it was well contained.
However, since April, Thailand experienced a third wave, with an average of 14,000-20,000 cases per day. Cases peaked in mid-August. There now seems to be a downward trend in both new infections and daily deaths. The healthcare system has struggled as there was not enough space in hospitals or ventilators. Strict lockdown measures were mainly implemented in Bangkok, including curfews, closures of various businesses, and encouragement for the public to work from home. Meanwhile, COVID spread rapidly throughout the country, including in Chiang Rai and Nan, where we work. Because this is the first significant outbreak of COVID, fear and concern have also spread with it.
COVID’s Impact on Education in Thailand
School closures and the shift to online learning have been particularly challenging. Schools were due to re-open in May and did not do so until July. When they did, many opened online. Many families we work with lack access to resources such as reliable internet and sufficient devices to allow children to study online successfully. When we conducted research earlier this year on COVID’s impact, 55% of respondents said they would not be able to support their children to study online, and 45% said they needed more reliable access to the internet for their children’s education. Some schools allowed students to use the internet there, as they were the only place with reliable internet in the village. This situation creates an obvious problem for equitable access.
Access wasn’t the only issue. Parents and children alike struggle to navigate online education platforms. For parents with limited education, it is impossible to help answer questions or assist with homework.
We have been checking on students to ensure they have the resources needed to study online. We have also been able to visit families in small groups while maintaining social distancing, allowing for continued mentorship.
Many schools have since reopened. However, virus outbreaks still cause interruptions.
COVID’s Impact on Income and Food Security
The level of unpaid work and the costs of living both increased significantly for many families caring for children home from school. For families already struggling to make ends meet, new costs arose, for example, in the form of lunches for children who would normally eat at school. Many migrant families normally manage by sending their children to live with relatives in Burma during the school year, and the kids come to visit on breaks. When the borders closed during the school break in April, many kids were stuck in Thailand. These changes may seem manageable, but they cause added strain particularly for those with an already limited income or savings and little wiggle room or resources to cope.
We provided COVID relief packages earlier this year, including household essentials such as soap, rice, and cleaning supplies. We reached over 450 people, with the support of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Thailand. We also coordinated with the government to safely send supplies to over 300 migrant workers in quarantine after an outbreak in Mae Sai district. We were able to afford this thanks to food provided by members participating in our sustainable livelihoods program! It’s gratifying to see how investment in communities can unexpectedly spread benefits outward.
The Impact on Mental Health
We’ve found a stark negative impact on mental health due to COVID. Respondents to our survey said their overall sense of wellbeing before the pandemic was positive 80-100% of the time. Through the pandemic, it went down to almost 40-60%. This finding is particularly noteworthy as many Thais hesitate to talk about mental health. It is still a taboo subject.
We continue to provide mentorship to our communities, visiting them whenever possible and talking to them on the phone. We continue to provide emotional support so that they have someone to talk to through this stressful time.
The Way Forward
Vaccine rollout in Thailand has been relatively slow, with about a third of the population fully vaccinated. While many in our community continue to wait for more available vaccines, we provided flu vaccines to staff and students at our resource centers. We hope that this helps to protect them in the coming months.
We are so thankful for our partners and their continued support of our community. We know that COVID is increasing vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation, and together we are doing what we can to mitigate the impact.