We're chatting to expats who live and work in Thailand about the pandemic situation here. Kevin is a full-time student in Bangkok but also finds time to do charity work with the amazing Bangkok Community Help.
Could you introduce yourself (where are you from? how long have you lived in Thailand? and what do you do for a living?)
My name is Kevin, I grew up in Texas, joined the U.S. Navy when I was 18, bopped around for a while, now I am 26 and I’ve been living here in Thailand for about two years. I’m currently a student at Stamford International University.
In general, how do you think Thailand has handled the pandemic up to now?
We’ve gone on quite the ride! I think we handled things very well initially, I think the first ultra-harsh lockdown was the right thing to do at the time, especially considering how early we had cases and how little we knew about everything.
I think we became too relaxed too quickly, the state never really found any other solutions during our months of normalcy, I think they just hoped it would never come back. But when it inevitably did, we had no other tools to fight COVID besides flipping off bars and schools like a light switch.
The vaccine situation has been abysmal, we are clearly months behind most of the world BUT I do think we are back on or at least close to finding the right path. I’ve been vaccinated, I know it’s rare, but I’ve seen how they’re doing it and I am impressed and comforted by how smooth and organized the process was once I had the magic ticket. I believe if they can keep up the supply of vaccines, they are competent enough to administer the vaccines quickly. (I know, what a hot take)
If you were put in charge of things right now, what would be the first rules or things you would change?
Well, I would open the parks, it’s easy to make calls when you have no actual responsibilities or consequences to face but isn’t this one a no-brainer?
More seriously, I would focus enormous resources to slum communities. These people are the most acutely vulnerable to COVID clusters and are the ones with the least number of resources and an unfortunate social stigma surrounding them.
Many of these people don’t have the ability to social distance and they certainly don’t have the ability to quarantine at home for 14 days like they are being asked to do. People in these communities often live a hand-to-mouth existence and are entirely reliant on that day’s income, so missing even one day of work can be catastrophic, how can we expect them to stay home for two weeks?
These communities are very sensitive to social and economic changes, they often have very little job security, if at all a formal job, limited access to healthcare, and no safety net, as a result, entire communities have quickly become entirely reliant on charities.
I would also like to emphasize that this is a failure of the state, not the people in these communities.
Let’s talk about you personally. What is the most regrettable thing that the pandemic has robbed you of or changed about your life?
I’ve been very fortunate I believe, other than the inconveniences that we all face during lockdowns, nothing especially harsh.
I lived in Hanoi prior to Bangkok, and I would fly there to see my friends instead of doing a 90-day report and spend a week or two with them and have a great time - so, I’ve missed that. Most of my circle of friends there have been sent back to their own countries so I hope we can all reunite at some point.
I also haven’t been able to go visit my family but thankfully my parents came out here to visit in February 2020, so literally the last possible minute, so I could reset that timer. Honestly flying to Texas is such a nightmare, I’m not pining to go home that badly.
From a work point of view, how has your situation changed (if indeed it has) and has there been any significant financial impact?
I am what you might call “unemployed”. I’m a student here, but as I’m a veteran I am using the U.S. GI Bill, which means the U.S. Veterans Administration pays for my university tuition and pays me a housing allowance, so school is kind of my job and source of income I suppose.
There was a two-month stretch where the American government was sitting on the fence on whether to keep paying students who have been forced online (usually you have to go to in-person classes to collect the stipend) which was quite stressful. Eventually they came around and passed legislation to keep paying indefinitely though.
Being switched online has not been ideal though. I’m sure you and everyone who reads this knows in some capacity that online learning is pretty terrible for all parties involved. Students lose focus, miss out on valuable social interaction, don’t actually absorb as much information as they could be and are almost certainly cheating on every single assignment they’re given.
Professors and teachers are forced to stare at and talk into a miserable blank screen all day and wait for the occasional student to turn on their microphone or to type a half-assed answer. I imagine it’s incredibly demoralizing.
Has the pandemic had any positive impacts on your life?
Several. It brought my partner and I close together and proved that we could sit in the same 50 sqm condo for months straight and not murder each other: we could even still enjoy each other’s company.
I discovered how interesting walking aimlessly for hours can be. We live in a wild, seemingly endless city and you can find so many cool things if you just wander around without a destination. On days with nothing to do, I’ve often spent 6-8 hours just walking.
I’ve also found a great community with Bangkok Community Help. I had too much time on my hands, so I tried to find some volunteer work to do. It started off slow with little painting projects to beautify a slum here, building something there, clearing out this or that. But now we have gotten quite large since turning our full attention to helping communities in Khlong Toei. It’s almost a full time job. I really love it though.
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?
I want to think we’re close. I want to say we’ll all be flying home for Christmas and not be worried about quarantine or outbreaks or anything - but who really knows? It is all entirely dependent on how quickly they vaccinate people and how quickly legislation to open up follows. I don’t know if anything will ever be “normal” again. It’s like 9/11, there is a definitive “before” and “after”. This is a marker in all of our lives that we will define as before COVID and after COVID.
Honestly I don’t know if we’ll ever rid ourselves of masks and I know they do have utility. At the very least it will be considered polite to wear them on public transport or in a crowded area, etc.
Maybe in two years or so it will be something we all complain about the tourists doing. “Look at those pale bastards fumbling with the ticket machines, they aren’t even wearing a mask! Makes all of us expats look bad!”
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?
Both. I’m more enthusiastic as I’ve networked extensively and met a ton of awesome people and I believe I have long-term prospects here.
Decreased because I don’t know if things will ever be the same. Many institutions we are familiar with will never be the same again. I don’t know if we will ever get back to where we were. I am also wary about the future of Thailand socially, politically and economically. I worry things could go down a bad road quickly if we don’t start trending more positive very quickly.
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?
Not particularly, I read a lot more, and maybe that will stick around. I know I’ll continue to be involved with Bangkok Community Help. I don’t think I’ll radically change my lifestyle though.
For someone who doesn’t know how to get through the days and is perhaps suffering mentally, what would be your advice?
Find a reason to be outside. Find something, anything, to do. Find a group, a hobby, anything. Don’t spend days at home on end. Even if it’s just going to walk for an hour, we need to be outside and active. Try and sweat at least once per day, get good sleep, stay in contact with people. We are in a bizarre time in history where we can effectively isolate ourselves in our apartment or house for days and days without seeing another human being. Don't do this!
Bangkok Community Help is a community initiative founded by Greg Lange during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck at the start of 2020. He was approached by a few members of the Klong Toei community asking to use the kitchen of his restaurant to prepare hot meals for the hunger-stricken people living in the slum areas.
Bangkok Community Help are always on the lookout for new volunteers to join them either on weekdays for painting and building destroyed homes or on Sundays to hand out hot food and donated items to the locals.
Follow Bangkok Community Help on Twitter to keep up-to-date with their latest projects and activities