Bangkok was the first place the novel coronavirus landed when it escaped China. And while Thailand has escaped the tragic onslaught that Italy, Spain, France and the United States have endured, the country has progressively shut down just like the world’s Covid-19 hotspots.
But after an early surge of imported cases from Chinese tourists, the outbreak seemed to subside after China banned overseas tours in late January. Even as the virus began to appear in Europe, Thailand was coasting along with the total number of reported cases in the teens and 20s.
Of course, the true extent of Covid-19’s spread in Thailand was masked by a serious lack of testing. Tests were said to be in short supply, but because of supply, not demand. Hospitals saw the new demand for coronavirus testing as an opportunity to gouge the public. While South Korea was testing hundreds of thousands of people for free, Thai private hospitals were charging 3,000, 5,000, 8,000, 15,000 and even 25,000 baht (US100-$900) for a test.
Thais couldn’t pay that and foreigners wouldn’t. So cases went unreported. The medical world knew Covid-19 was spreading silently and unhindered. The evidence began showing up in early March, with a 300% increase in reported cases of viral pneumonia. The cases weren’t called coronavirus, because no testing was being done, but the medical world knew what it was.
By March 7 reported cases started to rise. The jump from 22 to 100 cases happened within days and everyone began looking over their shoulder for the social axe to fall. With each day more bottles of sanitizing gel appeared, more face masks, more temperature guns. Finally, on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – Thailand’s military government dropped the hammer, announcing the closure of all bars, movie theaters, entertainment venue, massage parlors and anywhere people would get up close and personal, or have fun in groups.
Restaurants and shopping malls were allowed to remain open. The public hoped that would be the end of the shutdowns, although looking at Italy plunging into chaos, followed by Spain and France, it seemed unlikely. Four days later, everything closed.
Shopping malls locked up. Restaurants were restricted to take-out and delivery. Beauty salons, tattoo parlors and most non-essential busiensses were told to close. Across Thailand businesses went dark and their newly unemployed workers were told to stay home, except going out for food, medicine or work, if they could find a job.
As April approached, Bangkok held steady as provinces around the country followed its shutdown lead. At the same time, scattered groups of Thais continued to defy the “stay home” pleas. Time and again the minority’s selfish quests for fun, sex, booze and drugs provoked the former generals and by April 6, the next wave of restrictions began. It started with overnight closures of convenience stores and, three days later, resulted in a 10 p.m. – 4 a.m. curfew.
The curfew is being enforced by police and the military, with violators facing up to two years in prison and 400,000-baht ($14,000) fines. But by now the public didn’t really need to be told to stay home. They already were.
Thailand was now approaching 2,000 reported cases, every condominium and retail outlet’s security guards are checking for fevers. Thailand’s borders are shut and both the government and Thai public are in full-blow panic mode, even though the kingdom is really no worse off that it was two weeks earlier.
Cases are ticking up at 100-140 cases a day, sometimes less. Nearly 40% of those who were sick have already recovered and the death toll is only 20 deaths. The country is not experiencing the exponential growth of the pandemic seen elsewhere. Testing is still anemic, but it’s definitely a better situation than in the west.
While the curfew didn’t begin until 10 p.m. on April 3, Bangkok appeared as if it had already begun the night before. Evening rush hour in pre-Covid times was pretty much hell on earth. Vehicle traffic at the Asoke Montri-Sukhumvit Road intersection backed up for two kilometers at times. The MRT subway’s main Sukhumvit station often had to close because periodically because too many people were inside. Ticket lines lasted 30 minutes. The BTS Skytain was almost nearly as packed, with lines to board trains at the Asok station stretching off the platform and down the stairs.
And rush hour wasn’t short. With the opening of new stations and both train systems lagging in adding cars, carriages could be packed shoulder-to-shoulder well past 8 p.m. Sukhumvit traffic would still be jammed until after 11 p.m.
Not anymore. A two-hour walk from Sukhumvit Soi 2 to Soi 23 – which includes both the Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy red light districts – found Bangkok nearly deserted. Bars were dark, of course. but the extent of just how deserted the streets were, how empty the BTS was and how desolate the MRT stations were between 6 and 8 p.m. still proved hard to comprehend.
Behind Bangkok’s empty streets are torrents of tears and throbbing economic pain. Bars owners don’t know when they’ll see their next baht. Restaurateurs are trapped between earning income and giving away 40% of it to Foodpanda and competing food-delivery companies, the only industry raking in money during of the pandemic.
Hotels are closing across the country – at the request of the industry so their employees can collect unemployment benefits. Operators of any small business that’s not a 7-Eleven or Family Mart are surviving on instant noodles. Many have already left the capital to weather the storm in the provinces. And in single-room apartments – some 20 square meters big – Thais and more foreigners than you’d guess are pent up, wondering when it will all end.
This obviously is a story still without an ending. It’s been less than three weeks since bars and entertainment shut down. It’s still three weeks away from the announced end of the government’s emergency decree. But the smart bet is it will be extended, barring a sudden drop in daily cases reported.
For now, all we can do is stare at Bangkok’s empty streets from the balcony. And try to Netflix and chill.