Expats feel the pain of a pandemic

As the number of domestic coronavirus cases continues to rise, foreigners living in Thailand are among those who have had to adapt the most as visa requirements and visits to immigration have now become fraught with additional risks as well as the usual inconvenience.

Starting on Friday night, a six-hour curfew banned people nationwide from leaving their home between 10pm and 4am, except medical staff, patients and those working for transport or delivery services. Neon-lit Bangkok has turned into a ghost town as city residents scramble to get home ahead of the deadline.

However, the impact of anti-coronavirus measures was already being felt. J Geoffrey Walsh, a retired British expat in Bangkok, said the partial lockdown of the capital [from March 22-April 12] has changed his life.

"I live in an apartment on Wireless Road. The area is much quieter than it was. I am going out twice a week to do grocery shopping at a supermarket at Central Chidlom. However, I agreed to go into partial lockdown for my own safety because I belong to a risk group [the elderly]. Fortunately, my partner helps me with food," he told the Bangkok Post.

Mr Walsh said he has been spending his time reading books and following the news about Covid-19. He expressed concern about the government's communication with the public and its handling of visa requirements for foreigners living in the country.

"I have to submit 90-day reports and also renew my retirement visa at the end of April every year, but if I go to the Immigration Bureau, I won't be able to observe one-metre social distancing," he said.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, the Immigration Bureau has recently reminded foreigners that they can notify their residence and stay over 90 days by registered mail or via online services. However, many have complained the online system is unreliable. These methods of application are also not available for long-term visa extensions.

Michael Sobelman, a retired American expat in Khon Kaen, said he supports the government's move to enforce a curfew to contain the spread of Covid-19.

"Keeping people at arm's length was nearly impossible. You know, I saw a lot of people not wearing face masks at bars and restaurants. They had no regard for the law. I am happy to see these outlets closed for now," he said.

However, Mr Sobelman said the coronavirus outbreak is likely to cause him problems when he has to renew his retirement visa which is due to expire in August.

"I normally fly back to extend my visa with the Royal Thai Consulate General in New York, but I can't do it this year because the situation is critical.

"However, I can't open a bank account in Thailand either because banks are closed for now. When I contacted the Immigration Bureau, nobody answered the phone," he said.

Meanwhile, Peter Braunwarth, a German bookshop owner in Chiang Rai, said the pandemic has chased away tourists and brought his business to a halt.

"I have sold only one book over the past five days. My neighbourhood has gone silent because tourists are not allowed to enter the country and locals are staying at home. Many shops have closed and restaurants offer takeaway only.

''My bookshop remains open and maintains social-distancing, but nobody is coming," he said.

Li Min, 49, a Thailand-based reporter from the China Media Group, said she is having to rely on phone interviews and goes out to shop only as necessary.

"It's sad, [Thailand is a] tourism country and it's quiet now even for domestic tourists," she said.

"However, it's quiet at night, there's no noise from motorcycles or tuk-tuks so I sleep soundly these days," she said giggling.

Ms Li said she sees no point in the requirement to report her address every 90 days as it is inconvenient and she rarely travels anywhere else during the year.

She adds the online reporting system has not worked when she has tried to use it.

Some foreigners are not directly affected by the partial lockdown because they can work from home.

However, they think the coronavirus outbreak should be a wake-up call for people to try new ways of living.

Goustan Bodin, a French landscape architect, said the coronavirus crisis shows our overdependence on the system for survival.

"It is very fragile, but self-sufficiency can make us more resilient and autonomous. When any problem arises, we can depend less on how the system provides water, electricity and food," said the founder of the HyperTree group, which aims to reconnect city residents with nature.

"Beginners can visit our Facebook page 'Grow Learning Gardens' and contact me to help set up balcony gardens. It is helpful to have a network who can help you in a difficult time," he said.

Kelvin Ng, a Singaporean distributor of educational technology in Thailand, said schools do not prepare for pandemics and so are ill-equipped for online learning.

"It is a necessity and a way forward for students as the disease continues with no end in sight. For instance, schools in Hong Kong have been closed since January. They will remain closed until the situation improves, so they should combine offline and online learning," he said.

Mr Ng said Thai schools must adapt to customise the learning experience for each student.

"When the coronavirus breaks out, they can just duplicate the classroom experience on virtual platforms, for example, by using Google and Zoom.

"In fact, we can now track individual learning performance and deliver shorter and more interesting content," he said.

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OP: Bangkok Post

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