April 1, 2020
Greetings from Bangkok, where it’s so miserably hot you could scramble an egg on virtually any surface by 10:00 a.m. We’ve entered the hottest part of the year in Thailand, whose official seasons are a) hot and dry, b) wretchedly hot and dry (now), and c) hot and wet. To keep sane, I’ve been running in it—in the middle of the afternoon.
Why would I run at 3:00 p.m. in feels-like temperatures of 120 degrees? Because, though Thailand’s reported cases of coronavirus only number just north of 1,800 (compared to the current US tally of 190,000), my family has been at this isolation business for about five weeks now. And there is only so much of coordinate planes, independent variables, and Uno I can reasonably stand.
Maybe you’ve read somewhere that journalism opportunities aren’t what they used to be? (By the way, Mr. Ross, do you need an overqualified proofreader who is awake when you’re asleep?) I’ve largely resigned myself to the idea that a career change is logical, so I’ve taken a job at the international school my children attend, working in learning support while I study to become a teacher. To be employed in a foreign country means you have to get a work permit. And to get a work permit, you have to cancel your current visa (mine was diplomatic per my husband’s UN job), then leave the country, where you must visit a Thai consulate with vast amounts of paperwork gathered in advance, including proof via fingerprinting that you haven’t committed any crimes in your adopted country. I took a two-day trip to Singapore to do all that back in February, which threw me into quarantine upon my return home.
This was February 25, mind you, which seems like about thirty-seven years ago. It was back when Trump was alternately saying that all of this global calamity would “disappear” and that it was all just a “hoax.” Singapore only had a handful of cases at the time, but the hotel where I stayed was still taking everyone’s temperature before they could enter the dining room for breakfast. The airport had deployed thermal scanners and teams to read them as people deplaned to detect anyone with a fever. I remember being impressed by how aggressively the city-state was approaching detection.
But because I had been to a country Thailand deemed “high risk,” my kids had to be taken out of school and quarantined too once I got back. Right about the time our two weeks were set to expire, the school shut down—first for an anticipated two weeks, then indefinitely, per a mandate from Thailand’s Ministries of Education and Public Health.
Though the cases of this vicious virus here were minuscule at the time and still are in a country of 70 million people—the US has reported 573 cases per one million people, whereas Thailand has reported 25 cases per million—the government acted early toward containment. In addition to school closures, non-essential businesses were shuttered a couple of weeks ago, travel between provinces has been severely restricted, airlines have been grounded, and curfews have been instituted. And, in a way that only Thailand can, the government effectively closed its borders without explicitly saying it was doing so. Instead it began requiring anyone boarding a flight for Thailand to first produce proof that they’re virus-free along with a letter from a Thai embassy saying they’re fit to fly.
I could hop in my car right now—assuming I didn’t violate the 11:00 p.m. curfew—and get a drive-thru coronavirus test at our local hospital for 6,500 baht (about $195). But if I were to fly home to the US, there is absolutely no way I could return to Thailand because such testing and documentation required to board a flight are virtually impossible to get for even symptomatic people in much of the US, never mind for someone who is asymptomatic. And it would be immoral to try, given the horrific hellscape hospitals and medical workers are working through now.
Our school, the International School of Bangkok, reported to families via email several weeks ago that four family members of students had tested positive for the virus and were hospitalized. Though there have been no more cases connected to our school, our Thai province of Nonthaburi has the second-highest concentration of confirmed coronavirus patients.
To go shopping at our local supermarket, a mask isn’t just encouraged; it’s required. Asian cultures embrace masks in a number of contexts (pollution, illness, et cetera) in ways that Western ones don’t. Those of us who are particularly sensitive to the shortage of surgical and N95 masks for medical workers tend to wear washable ones intended for filtering harmful pollutants. They get the job done well enough without our having to feel awkward and guilty about wasting protective equipment a hospital could be using. (Of course, though Thailand has a shortage just like the US, it is using the full force of the government to direct domestic mask manufacturers and is handling distribution to hospitals as well.)
Just like back home, some of us are taking this more seriously than others. As recently as four days ago, I was invited to a cocktail gathering of expats at someone’s home. I declined. My kids haven’t seen their friends in five weeks, but they can now take me handily in table tennis. In a country teeming with migrant labor, a shocking number of vulnerable and exploited sex workers, and an enormous service industry reliant on low-wage earners, we aren’t the middle class here that we’d be back home. We are the relative rich living a life of privilege. We are, in short, lucky as hell. And so, we’re grateful and believe the least we can do is submit ourselves to driving one another a little crazy. I have also developed a very bad Choco-Pie habit.
Yours in solidarity,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Garrigan’s contribution will be directed to Second Harvest Food Bank.