When I told my university friends that I would be joining my parents in Thailand for the duration of Spring Break, they looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I could see why: a quick glance at a map is enough to know that Thailand is not particularly well-situated for the rapid spread of COVID-19.
However, though I had my reservations as I entered an all but abandoned Edinburgh Airport, one of the few fools to persist in travelling against all advice, I am extremely glad that I made it out of the UK when I did. As the whole of Europe drives itself into a spiralling state of hysteria, Thailand meanwhile prescribes a spicy diet and a good dose of sunshine. We would do well to learn from the Thai attitude.
The uncertainty I experienced in the airport that day did not disappear for good. When, barely a week after my arrival, it was announced that Britain was on lockdown, I was initially disconcerted. My flight back home was cancelled, the last opportunity to return to home soil in a long time, and the prospect of spending whole months with my parents for my only company was soul-destroying. (I am sure I am not the only one).
However, once the news had settled a bit and I stepped outside into the warm air, I was heartened by the defiantly energetic street scene, the normally infuriating buzz of mopeds now positively reassuring. It struck me that I was lucky to be in a place still grounded in normality. Other than the minor addition of face masks, life in Rayong is just as it was when I was here last summer: that blissful stage in my existence when a worldwide flu pandemic seemed unimaginable.
The sympathy that I get for being trapped in a foreign country is, therefore, misdirected. To the chorus of people back home groaning, “Oh, you poor thing”, I can only laugh. Although mindful of being one of the only Westerners, i.e. disease-bearers, for miles around, I am free to leave the confines of the house whenever I like. With my parents’ motorbikes at my disposal, I have the freedom of going to the beach; buying an iced coffee down the river; and exploring the local 7/11 for intriguing snacks called things like “Big Sheet”.
Now, you may be thinking that I am recklessly taking advantage of the relative laxity of Thai regulations. You would not be wrong. Although the Thai government has put in place social distancing measures such as the closure of markets, their approach has indeed been very moderate in comparison to the draconian lockdown consuming Europe. So far, the extent of my observance of the situation has been to check my temperature twice a day — and even that is merely a courtesy.
The Thais have good reason to remain calm. As it stands, Thailand has fewer than two thousand cases of Coronavirus, recording only fifteen deaths to Britain’s three thousand. Local explanations circulate in abundance as to why this might be the case. Our neighbour, Mr Tawatchai, attests that the warm climate slows down the spread of the virus. As a firm believer in the miracles of sunshine, I am fully onboard with this point of view. Mind you, I am told Wuhan is pretty warm at this time of year, too.
Another local theory is that spice, an almost unavoidable addition in Southeast Asian cuisine, strengthens the immune system, acting as a natural antidote to illnesses like Coronavirus. I subscribe to this belief in the same way as some people refuse to walk under ladders; it is worth the extra reassurance. If the fight against COVID-19 really does boil down to consuming a few more chillis, the Thais will be laughing in our faces when our economy enters a period of crippling stagnation.
Even if I have been incinerating my taste buds in vain, I still think we can learn a lot from the Thais in this tough time. In the past, whenever there was a global crisis, Europe was always the first to come to the rescue, glowing in a mist of unbridled heroism. Now, the tables have turned: Europe is the worst-hit region in the world, and its responses have been delayed and ineffective. This time it is Thailand which shines through as the beacon of wisdom.
European measures to tackle Coronavirus have been misguided. Shutting down borders, for
instance, does nothing to stem the spread of the virus in local communities, where close contact is most problematic. According to one researcher, the closure of borders only reduces the rate of an epidemic by less than three percent, hardly worth the emotional burden of feeling like you are in a post-apocalyptic police state.
Not only have they been misguided, but it seems that efforts in the West to deal with the virus have been as much about appearing to be in control of the situation as they have about actually solving it. Pride has taken precedence over resolve. Having missed the opportunity to harness the crisis earlier, European governments have hastily imposed nationwide lockdowns in a bid to look like they are on top of the crisis.
The Thai government, for its part, has dealt with the virus remarkably swiftly, introducing
manageable steps from the instant it began to spread. Short of closing down borders, it has tackled the issue of movement by clamping down on travel between regions. This policy has clearly paid off: whilst over a thousand cases have been recorded in Bangkok, in Chon Buri, where I am currently staying, there has been just under seventy cases.
It is not just a matter of policy, however; it is also one of attitude. In modern-day Britain, we are wrapped up in cotton wool. We shy away from adversity and cannot bear the slightest inconvenience to our everyday lives. Unaccustomed to natural disasters and disease outbreaks, we have become dangerously complacent. As the virus ramps up in scale, driving people into isolation for months on end, the damage could be psychological as well as physiological.
In Camus’ pertinent novel The Plague, the population of a small Algerian town is hit by a sudden plague epidemic. Initially people turn a blind eye to it on the grounds that “A pestilence does not have human dimensions”. It is only when death becomes a very real prospect that the inhabitants begin to panic. The parallels with Britain are clear: until the virus became a tangible threat to the fabric of our everyday lives, few of us grasped its seriousness. Now that the virus has delivered its striking blow, society has descended into a state of mass hysteria it may struggle to recover from.
From what I have observed, ordinary Thais have met the crisis with a good deal more pragmatism. Whilst drawing the line at giving up work, they are diligent to the point of obsession about hygiene. They wash their hands religiously; wear face masks almost without exception; and I have seen no instances of large public gatherings. Perhaps more tellingly, the degree of panic at ground level is not even approaching that in Britain.
Although the masks sometimes make it hard to tell, the people I have encountered here have shown no signs of being stricken with terror. At the roadside, people continue to sell their produce with the same enthusiasm that I recall from last summer. Meanwhile, in shops, the stock of loo paper runs no risk of depletion, always a good indicator of panic levels. As I pass ornate shrines to Buddha draped in colourful flower chains along the road, I cannot help but think that mindfulness plays a part in this down-to-earth approach towards the epidemic.
I did not write this article simply to boast about how lucky I am to be in Thailand right now; it is also a reminder that we should learn from other cultures, especially in times of crisis. While it would be far-fetched to argue that a combination of chilli and sunshine holds the key to immunity, I believe we ought to draw a few lessons from the Thai approach to Coronavirus. It is unlikely that European governments will reverse the impact of their blunders at this stage, but it is not too late for us to avoid a long-lasting psychological scar.
Remaining calm, avoiding panic and accepting the temporary rupture in our everyday lives would be a good start.