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BANGKOK — Without movies, restaurants, malls, bars, and even home visits, if you strictly follow the doctors’ advice, romantic relationships in Thailand are taking on new forms during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the virus sweeps through the country and beyond, pushing total infections in Thailand to nearly 3,000 and killing up to 50 people, Thais are forced to adapt to the new habit of avoiding social gatherings under a series of restrictions. People no longer meet new people; and those who have already met don’t meet anymore. 

Into this void of social functions enter online groups dedicated to helping Thais meet their potential soulmates. Facebook groups are springing up amid the epidemic, mostly based on the university alumni class using their connections to find common ground and break the ice. 

“We can’t get to know each other in a physical presence, but we can learn about each other by finding the right timing to be in each other’s lives,” Sarun Asawanuchit, one of the founders of such groups, said in a phone interview.

Sarun, 33, is one of the brains behind Chula Students Single No Longer, a group of Chulalongkorn students and alumni that grew from zero to more than 31,000 members within seven days. 

“It’s a steeper learning curve because in the past, people might become boyfriend and girlfriend in two weeks,” Sarun said. “But during this time people might take longer to learn about each other because they’re apart.”

He added, “It possibly forces you to get to know each other better.” 

One of his proudest success stories from the week-old group is a missed connections ad: a Rangsit University alumna was seeking an upperclassman who bandaged up her wound when she got injured during an Open House event at Chulalongkorn.

Sure enough, netizens in the group got to work, and the two were soon reunited online. 

Uni Connections

By one count, 12 such communities have emerged so far. Most of them are set to private, meaning only members accepted by the admins can view and interact with the posts.

In the group, people post short profiles about themselves or their friends  – their education, hobbies, and likes – to encourage potential dates to contact them. The same model applies to other similar groups springing up during the nationwide quarantine.

The trend underscored the dominance of Facebook over Thais’ everyday lives; it is estimated that about 26 million Thais use the site, more than any other social media platform. 

Nopphasin Sukphatcharaphon, 33, the founder of Thammasat University’s Matchmaker Group, says he created the Facebook forum because he is aware of shortfalls associated with mainstream dating apps. 

An example of a partner-seeking thread in Silpakorn University’s matchmaking group

“In apps you can’t check people’s background and have to ask for all their basic info which you can’t verify,” said Nopphasin, who said he’s an avid user of dating apps himself. 

He continued, “And if you’re looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, you would probably want someone with similar shared experiences to you since it makes it easier to talk to them.” 

The web developer-slash-pilates instructor says connecting through Facebook groups and friends makes it harder to “ghost” their dates than dating applications, since people use their real Facebook accounts, and some may even have mutual friends. 

Thammasat Matching Making Group was founded on April 12. It now has more than 44,000 members. 

Sarun from the Chulalongkorn matchmaking effort said these forums are growing fast because Facebook is pushing posts from the Groups function onto many users’ feeds.

Facebook VS Tinder? 

Natnapat Chun-ub, 31, who helped found Chula Students Single No Longer, said there’s a clear benefit to having a large, yet exclusive dating pool such as a university alumni group.

“People want to go into dating groups that are credible, such as your own uni or your friend’s uni,” he said. “My friends on Tinder say that the pool there is so wide and you’re not able to check people’s backgrounds immediately.” 

“Here you can go into their Facebook profile, and possibly have some mutual friends.”

But Tinder is also stepping up its online dating initiative. For instance, its Passport feature, which allows users to swipe for dates all around the world and not just in their location, used to cost money. But the function is now free through April 30. 

Marwin Mamai, 26, said he’s taking advantage of the feature to connect with people from around the world. The pandemic, it turned out, also offers a common experience they can chat about.

“When chatting with local people, although we want to meet, we’re afraid of COVID,” Marwin, who identified himself as gay, said. “So I chat with people overseas. Talking about COVID is one of the ice breakers now. I ask how the situation is in their country.” 

“It’s become part of life that we can’t not talk about.”

Love in the Time of Corona 

But despite all these ingenious efforts to maintain a slice of normalcy in the time of coronavirus, it is inevitable that romance does not function as well in sickness as in health.

Some of those interviewed for this story share an anecdote of couples that have put budding relationships on pause, or even stopped altogether, due to the virus. But putting conscientious effort into that special someone during this time might strengthen existing romances. 

Sarun, the founder of Chulalongkorn online dating group, said he’s currently “seeing” a woman that he met before the outbreak changed the course of the world, and the relationship continues to deepen despite the social distancing. 

“I’m super extroverted and she’s very introverted so I think it works well. I feel we both have space in the day to talk,” he said. “I think couples that survive this time period are more likely to emerge strong, if they can tolerate each other like this.” 

For those wading into the pool of digital dating, Nopphasin said video calls are a key in building relationships, obviously. 

“Since you can’t meet in person, video call and confirm their identity and make sure they’re not a scammer,” Nopphasin said. “From there, you can see if you like their characteristics and way of talking, and vice versa. That way you won’t waste your time.”

Natnapat said she found the video call to be very crucial in maintaining the relationship she has with her boyfriend; the two cannot meet due to social distancing measures. 

“At least we get to see each other’s faces,” she said.