We're chatting to expats who live and work in Thailand about the pandemic situation here. Kenny is a teacher in Bangkok and has been in Thailand about 8 years.
Could you introduce yourself (where are you from? how long have you lived in Thailand? and what do you do for a living?)
I’m Kenny, originally from Essex in the UK, and I’ve been living in Thailand just shy of 8 years. After spending my initial months doing a TEFL up in Khon Kaen, I’ve been teaching in Bangkok since November 2013.
In general, how do you think Thailand has handled the pandemic up to now?
Last year, they took quick action and we went into lockdown around the same time, or maybe just before they did in the UK. They were very cautious here about opening things up again, even after weeks of no new cases. It seems like a very long time ago there was a grand total of 58 deaths and it didn't change for months on end.
Since the second outbreak in December and now the current third wave, the response has been muddled to put it mildly! If there continues to be a spike in daily infections, will some provinces have to move to an even darker shade of red?...or maybe brown would be more apt?
I spent Christmas and New Year travelling around Krabi and after returning from Koh Lanta we arrived in Krabi Town to find that they’d decided to close all bars in Krabi Town, but just for three days only, like that was going to have a huge effect? Everywhere else we went in the province, things were running normally, so there wasn’t even consistency within the same province.
As for the third wave, it seems crazy that quite a few things are still open for business, despite being at a point where we have a few thousand new cases a day. There are other small things I've noticed, like they haven’t bought back the alternate seating on the BTS/MRT they had in Bangkok last year to space people out. I have seen it enforced on some buses, but not all.
If you were put in charge of things right now, what would be the first rules or things you would change?
I’d remove all the red tape with external vaccine imports. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for hospitals now offering Moderna but when you look closer, it’ll be October when they have it - but they still want their 4,000B payment upfront! Maybe it would help to dish out contracts to some other local pharmaceutical companies to mass produce Pfizer and others on top of Astrazaneca.
I’m writing this in mid-June and it seems crazy that Thailand’s vaccination rollout is only two weeks old, whereas most other countries in the world have been at it since Christmas. In terms of making some unpopular decisions, I’d actually push for things like shopping malls, spas etc and indoor dining to be closed again until there is a big drop in new transmissions.
There has now been announcements about opening everything for mid-October. I guess they hope to somehow salvage the 2021 high season, but it really doesn’t make any sense, given how slowly the vaccine rollout has been so far.
The only good thing I can say about the 120 day headline is at least now there is some kind of tangible target on the horizon, even if most observers, me included, expect a spectacular failure. We still haven’t had any further specifics added since the announcement was made. The reopening of Phuket in a few weeks will be a good preview of what's to come.
Let’s talk about you personally. What is the most regrettable thing that the pandemic has robbed you of or changed about your life?
Usually the school holidays would give me a window to hop back over to the UK and catch up with friends and family. I don’t see that being possible this year while there are still quarantines required at both ends. Over the past 5 years I’ve spent a lot of my free time travelling around Thailand watching Thai league football up and down the country while making Vlogs. I only managed to see about three games live in the 2020 season, which ended up being spread over a 13-month period. Normally I’d be there at most Port FC home games, some away trips and anything else in the Championship (Thai 2nd Division) that took my fancy.
From a work point of view, how has your situation changed (if indeed it has) and has there been any significant financial impact?
My plan in 2020 (pre-pandemic) was to get my graduation papers (I’d finished studying for a degree in Bangkok at the end of 2019) and look for a new job before the new 2020 school year. However, March to July last year ended up being a real low point as I had no money coming in and the university was behind on issuing my transcripts due to the pandemic. I had dabbled in some online teaching before 2020 and always kept some of that money to one side in case the “s-word” happened - and sure enough, 2020 became the time I needed to break open that pot.
Has the pandemic had any positive impacts on your life?
While most people couldn’t wait to see the back of 2020, I can’t grumble too much about the second half of the year. Finally in June, I got all my paperwork from the university and managed to find a new role quickly. After not seeing a pay cheque after February 28th, it was a big weight off my shoulders to get hired again.
After 7 years of working for an agency, it’s been a breath of fresh air to work directly at a more established school and actually get a salary all year round with other benefits too! This place even has air-conditioning! It has also led to me finding a new relationship and finally being able to move into a more central part of Bangkok after 7 years out in the fringes of deepest Ladprao.
The current school year resumed last month and we’re currently working 100% online. I would say I’m enjoying the daily commute from the bedroom to the computer desk near my kitchen but adapting to online classes with 30 kids is an ongoing learning curve.
I can see the benefit of Microsoft Teams in a corporate environment, but it is still a work in progress as far as being an educational platform. Sure, Microsoft keep adding some new features here and there, but they need to be doing more than giving kids access to their favourite GIFs in the chat box to make it a child friendly platform.
Apart from a potentially unfriendly time difference for the Thai school day, you do begin to wonder if we foreign “online” teachers would be better off jetting back West to get booked in for our vaccine shots back home and then return in October for the grand re-opening. Certainly in Bangkok or other dark red zones, I can’t see a return to classrooms for this semester.
When do you predict the world will return to some sort of normality and we will be able to travel abroad and maybe get to remove these damn face-masks, etc?
Although the world is turning the corner, through gritted teeth I’ll say it looks like the virus will be here to stay in one form or another. It will just be a case of how quickly all countries can vaccinate their people and potentially give booster shots in the future as new mutations appear.
It was weird for me to see how resistant they’ve been to facemasks back home (UK) and in America. Over here, they told people to wear facemasks right at the start and nobody really flinched. People in Bangkok were already wearing facemasks up to when the pandemic started, mainly because of the smog. I think in Asia a lot of people will probably still voluntarily wear them going forward, but in Europe and America, people will have already tossed them in the bin.
Things started to go pear-shaped in March 2020. Over the past year or so, has your enthusiasm for living in Thailand increased or decreased?
I was holidaying on Koh Chang last March when things started to go south, I can’t remember which official it was that gave the speech about “unwashed dirty farangs'' spreading COVID, but it seemed to plant seeds of doubt in the locals pretty quickly. Some Brits at my hotel were refused entry to the local bank to exchange money not long after that soundbite went out.
That kind of xenophobia has always bubbled under the surface here in Thailand and now we’re seeing it again with the vaccine registration procedure, where foreigners need to roll a double six to start. Stuff like that has chipped away at me slightly, but ultimately, I’d still rather be living here than back in the UK.
When we get to the light at the end of this long tunnel, have you promised yourself to make lifestyle changes or do some things differently?
Being able to get out of Bangkok and travel around was something I missed a lot last year. When the lockdown started last March, I didn’t get out of Bangkok again until September. I was previously getting out of the city at least once a month. When things are relaxed with the current colour coded system, I’ll definitely be itching to do another trip away from the Bangkok Metropolis.
Domestic Thai football is due to start up again before August but I expect it will be a few months into the season until they’ll allow mass fan attendance again. The Asian Champions League group games next month have been moved to a Buriram bubble with the other teams flying in, and the games will most likely be played out in an empty Thunder Castle (Buriram's home ground)
For someone who doesn’t know how to get through the days and is perhaps suffering mentally, what would be your advice?
Something I found a big help during the first lockdown last year was disconnecting from social media or watching any of the rolling 24-hour news. The constant churn of bad news and conspiracy theories wasn’t helping my own state of mind early on in the pandemic, plus the lack of routine was a struggle as well because I was between jobs at the time.
I was finding it hard to sleep at night, no matter what time I tried to have an early night, I couldn’t get off to sleep until 4…5…or even 6am, then I’d wake up after lunchtime and the day was already half gone. I would like to say I used that lockdown time to take up yoga and learn Mandarin, in reality, a productive day was trying a different restaurant on FoodPanda and getting through a whole season on Football Manager.
At least in this current quasi-lockdown in 2021, I have a work schedule to stick to and throw my energies into.
One thing that started for me last year during lockdown was a group video call with friends back in the UK every Saturday night. We were all going through this together and it is a fixture we’ve stuck to right up to this day, even with different relaxations in the lockdowns here and back in the UK.
Being able to catch up on a weekly basis and talk about what we were all going through was a big help in terms of mental well-being. If this pandemic had happened in an era before fast internet and free video calling, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it.
With gyms being a service that has been in a constant flux of open/closed over the last 18 months, I did start to do some jogging a few times a week and was finding it a good release, and then the parks were closed down.
As I write this, they have now opened again, but based on what I saw in Chatuchak yesterday, there seems to be little consistency on whether you’re still required to wear masks while running or not. Exerting yourself in this heat and humidity is hard enough, without restricting your airflow further!