Hot Seat

Johnny Bell

We're chatting to expats who live and work in Thailand about the pandemic situation here. Welshman Johnny is a retiree and lives down in Pattaya with his Thai partner and grown-up son. Even though Johnny is battling physical challenges, his incredibly positive outlook is something to behold.

Q

Could you introduce yourself (where are you from? how long have you lived in Thailand? and what do you do for a living?)

A
My name is Johnny Bell, and I'm a 71-year-old retiree (since 2010). I'm originally from North Wales and the grandson of Public Works Contractor, Sir Alfred McAlpine. I worked for the family firm for 25 years, became a director after six and ran overseas contracts in Africa and the Middle East. I am (was) a cricketer and represented Wales for 11 years with the highlight of playing in the 1979 ICC World Cup. I played for the MCC and Marchwiel Cricket Club, and became President of Denbighshire County Cricket Club, following my father, and then mother in that role.

I first visited Thailand in 1975 on business, staying a week before moving on to Japan. My thoughts at that time were to be a regular visitor to Thailand whenever I could, such was the good impression I got from that first visit. 

Following a messy divorce, I was able to fulfill that wish from 1985 onwards when I came back to play a cricket tournament at RBSC in Bangkok. That developed into The Chiang Mai International Sixes Competition in 1988 of which I was an originator. The tournament has been put on hold due to Covid-19, but would have enjoyed its 33rd Season. We truly hope it will continue again next year. 

Regular annual visits from 1985 became permanent residency here on Jan 11th 2006, due sadly to two deaths in the family, including my second wife, and the loss of a very dear friend. The family estate, cricket ground and associated business were left in the hands of my three children, and I took my leave of the UK. 

Now retired, living just outside Pattaya with my long term partner (15 years) and her 17-year-old son, I live a quiet life, hoping in due course, to enjoy the people and places we used to visit regularly. Life change has unfortunately consigned me to a wheelchair - and Thailand is not very wheelchair-friendly I might add!
Q

In general, how do you think Thailand has handled the pandemic up to now?

A

During my time in the Kingdom, I have experienced three coups. I always felt that change would be around the corner with the arrival of a new leader, and initally all was good. I believe the pandemic was handled well in the first year but not so well in 2021. There have been many signs that things might get out of control with the advent of dangerous variants. 

Once a vaccine has been developed, tested and proven - then that is the time to inoculate the population. Dilatory decision making, u-turns and wild propaganda have fuelled uncertainty and the recent increase in cases and deaths are exacerbating fear in the general public. I believe important decisions need to be taken immediately to collectively combat this killer disease.

Q

If you were put in charge of things right now, what would be the first rules or things you would change?

A

Teamwork is essential in beating this thing. Knowledge from scientific bodies, health advisors and government ministers must then coordinate effectively to ensure the swift inoculation of the entire population. Border control needs to be tightly supervised, particularly where the borders are so porous. 

More information control is necessary. At present, the TAT are firing off plan after plan and yet bureaucracy is making these schemes totally impractical. The whole situation is becoming a nightmare for so many local people - and they are the Kingdom's lifeblood. They must be protected at all costs. Yet we seem to have put military issues ahead of health in the recent budget - and that cannot be right.

Q

Let’s talk about you personally. What is the most regrettable thing that the pandemic has robbed you of or changed about your life?

A

For me, the worst thing is that my twilight years, which I had hoped to enjoy here by travelling extensively around the Kingdom, visiting old friends and meeting new ones, has been curtailed. My other half is of the same opinion and once we get her son to university next year, we would hope that freedom once again prevails. 

Sadly, it looks likely that as an older expat, I will not be considered eligible for injections for a while. Not exactly the friendly approach I would have expected when I first arrived here so many years (and Baht) ago.

Q

From a work point of view, how has your situation changed (if indeed it has), and has there been any significant financial impact?

A

Being retired means no hardship on the work front. I am, however, always keen to watch world markets, the exchange rates and personal cash flow. Frugality is good for both health (no booze/ciggies) and the pocket. I do notice a much greater influence on Thai fortunes from China with increasing involvement in infrastructure, businesses, military hardware, property and offices, though I shall not comment further on ASEAN matters of a similar nature.

Q

Has the pandemic had any positive impacts on your life?

A

Yes, it has made me realise that the decision I made in coming to Thailand was the right one. I met a lovely girl, and this pandemic has brought us even closer. The bubble we have created as a result of Covid has cemented our relationship over the last 18 months. We live in close daily proximity and have had a much stronger outlook on life together.

Q

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?

A

That's a difficult question bearing in mind the state of affairs at the moment. Personally, I am not convinced there is much idea on how to proceed. It is almost a case of every man for himself at the moment. 

Loss of face here is a significant issue. When life and death decisions have to be taken, I'm afraid there are many decision-makers who just fall by the wayside. Hazarding a guess, I would say that the sandbox experiment will fail ( despite what we will be led to believe). October opening will be foolhardy as inoculation at the current rate will not be higher than 15% ( full vaccination). 

I doubt folks will start returning as genuine tourists until late 2022, and even then if further variants happen, it could be longer. The economy will take longer to recover, at least five years. BoT will get bolstered from China, and Chinese money will continue to pour into the Kingdom. 

At the end of the day, if Covid doesn't get me - then old age will! Masks, my friend, will be with us for a long time yet. As irritating as they are, they do serve a purpose and it would be irresponsible to be seen without one at the moment. 

Q

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?

A

My decision to come here was still the right one in my view. Given my situation, I do not wish to leave our bubble. I believe every day we cope with the pandemic, listening to the BS, watching the fannying about, etc is all part of that rich tapestry of life, and stories which nobody will believe in 50 years time. Yes, Phil, I'll stick around, if only to read your column!  

Q

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?

A

I could come out with some particularly saucy replies to this one! No, not many changes,  perhaps a bit more freedom to upgrade material things, get out and about more and continue to support local businesses, restaurants and the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club (my favourite cricket watering hole). 

Losing weight is always on my agenda too as I'm a big fellah at 6'1" and 160 kgs. That would be good for my knees (which is the cause of my immobility)

Q

For someone who doesn’t know how to get through the days and is perhaps suffering mentally, what would be your advice?

A

It's a situation which I could have found myself in. I would say that folk must not give up hope. There is a cure around the corner and it will become available. 

Avoid reading too many press reports and try to find a hobby which can occupy your mind for a few hours a day. For me, it is computer technology. I really enjoy finding ways to get sports channels for free, including films, TV mini-series and useful laptop security programmes. 

Keep active by walking, doing yoga, gardening, fish-keeping - there are loads of things to do at home. I know there are folks you can speak to if you are having issues - Samaritans for example. Do not bottle things up. Things will improve!

Follow Johnny on Twitter


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