Bangkok is an economic engine and Thailand’s tourist hot spots are just some of the wheels that drive it. Migrants come from the outlying provinces, and the surrounding nations, to man the grunt jobs of Thailand’s big cities and tourism sector. It’s rarely glamorous work, but the wages earned are enough to buy a better quality of life (usually for family back home).
On March 21st, Bangkok, and a number of other provinces, declared a “soft” lockdown shuttering almost everything. With the closure of much of the capital’s service sector, it was estimated that each day between 70,000 to 80,000 day labourers flocked to Bangkok’s bus stations. It was days before this flow slowed down. Border crossings and border towns began to feel the strain. Some land crossings only opened sporadically and migrants, both legal and otherwise, began to panic that they would be unable to return home. Presently, Thailand’s land and sea borders are closed and only Thais can fly in (with a few exceptions). Phuket, Thailand’s island of choice for tourists, is completely closed.
For Thais who made their way to their hometowns, it was days later when an announcement was made that social insurance benefits would support those who were laid-off. By then, inter-provincial travel was nearly impossible and so few returned to work or to the city.
In the headlines, phrases like, “those selfish and irresponsible migrants” started to surface. Accusations were hurled of how little those people care about the health and safety of others – after all, look at how they dispersed across the region in just a matter of days. They probably helped spread the virus. Comments like this failed to consider that day labourers, as the name implies, are paid daily. No work = no money. Without money, life in the city is impossible. Life abroad – untenable. In their home villages, migrants most likely have somewhere to stay and can help grow their own food. Bangkok is many things, but it’s not prime farmland.
With little other choice, migrants and day labourers squeezed onto buses and trains, clambered to cross borders, and moved as quickly as they could to get safe before an outright ban on mobility trapped them where they could not afford to live, eat, or buy drinking water. None of this even touches on the fact that there families back home lost a source of income overnight.
Migrants are many things, but rarely irresponsible.
In chaotic times, we often look for someone to blame. Maybe it’s the governments fault. Maybe the world should blame Asia (racists like this idea). Maybe it’s those selfish migrants. It’s most certainly the covidiots. If you’re reading this (with all your new found free time), odds are that these are testing times for you, but ultimately you’ll be okay. For many – the marginalized, the fringe, the immigrant, the migrant, the day labourer – this might break whatever security they’d built. If you have the opportunity to be practically compassionate – be that.