Opinion: COVID-19 Exposes Deadly Inequalities in Thailand

Workers disinfect Klong Toey slum community on April 24, 2021. Photo: Duang Prateep Foundation.
Workers disinfect Klong Toey slum community on April 24, 2021. Photo: Duang Prateep Foundation.

It’s never a good time to be poor, or an ordinary person with no connections. When there’s a COVID-19 outbreak, it could quickly become fatal. Your chance of dying, if infected, is much higher than the rich and well-connected that will in no time be taken to a plush hospital.

At Klong Toey Slum, Thailand’s largest shanty town, 50 people have been infected by midweek. Many called for a field hospital bed in vain. No field hospital beds were available for most of them.

They had to wait and they ended up having to quarantine themselves inside their tiny and over-crowded homes, often with many other family members who shared the space and exposed the rest to the risk of infections, until an ad hoc space was set at a temple inside the community on Thursday.

“It’s very congested. It’s like being imprisoned at home,” Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, founder of Klong Toey-based Duang Prateep Foundation told me earlier this week about the situation.


You don’t need to be a slum dweller to be more acutely vulnerable.

Half a dozen ordinary people called the government COVID-19 hotline 1668 in vain over the past 10 days. They died before or as help arrived. Some of these people died a lonely death. They called and called and called but the hotline was busy, busy and busy. When help came, it came too late.

Political artist Sina Wittayawiroj even made a parody out of Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1793 painting, “The Death of Marat” about the situation. Instead of French Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, it’s an anonymous ordinary Thai male lying on a bed with the same posture, dead. His left hand holding on to a smartphone after failing to get help from the government’s hotline centre, the word “HELP” was written on the floor.

Parody artwork by political artist Sina Wittayawiroj.
Parody artwork by political artist Sina Wittayawiroj.

Even famous comedian Nah Khom, or Arkhom Preedakul, who got to the hospital in time didn’t make it and died on Friday. Many, including a family member of his, later said if only the inoculation process was two months faster, the 63-year-old comedian could have survived. Many of the dozen or so who died daily over the past ten days could have also been saved if they were inoculated in time.

The inoculation process has been so slow that some well-to-do Thais said they are prepared to fly out of Thailand for an inoculated trip abroad. The progress here is so slow that it could be too late and the type of vaccines not that of their preferred make.

More vulnerable, more fragile poors are doubly penalized as they have less or no savings left by the current third outbreak. Consider the government’s imposed fine for not wearing sanitary masks in public. Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha was among the first to be slapped with a fine of 6,000 baht in Bangkok earlier this week after he chaired a COVID-19 meeting not wearing a mask. (Yes, you read that right.)

It may be just a loose change for Prayut, but 6,000 baht is half a monthly income for many poor in Bangkok if not more.


Wherever we look, it’s clear that Thailand must be made more equitable. Coronavirus has made it all too apparent. No amounts of civic initiatives and good Samaritan deeds could sustainably fill the gap of inequality and strained healthcare systems.

Inequality is real and made more graphic and tragic by COVID-19 in many parts of the world and Thailand is no exception.

No philanthropy can sustainably address the problems of structural inequality, government inefficiency, and bad planning. We are thankful that more than a few citizens are now forming groups to volunteer to help fill some gaps. In the long-run, we need to strike at the heart of the problem, and it should begin with tackling the kingdom’s inequalities.