COVID-19 Op-ed

Land of Smiles?: A brief assessment of the effects of Covid-19 on the life of a motorbike taxi driver in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

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-Joana M. Cassinerio

The universality of the effects of Covid-19 on many
populations, industries, sectors as well as human rights have become apparent
in the past months. While the epicentre of the pandemic has shifted from
China to the West, Thailand has not been spared. As of early May, the country
reported 2,969 Covid-19 cases, which caused the loss of 54 lives, comparable
to the number of casualties in Lithuania and Estonia (Google News, 2020).In
order to prevent the country’s economic performances from going into free
fall, but also mindful of potential unrest in a country that is historically
prone to coup d’états, the Thai government announced in March that it would
be handing out THB15,000 (approximately US$460) over the course of three
months to eligible individuals, including informal workers, self-employed
persons, and others hardest hit by the pandemic (Theparat, 2020). In
succeeding weeks, the Thai government had put its population on a
rollercoaster of misinformation, first announcing that funds were not enough
to provide aid to all eligible citizens (Bangprapa, 2020; Burton, 2020),
followed by public outcry and the government’s reassurance that there was,
indeed, enough money available (Thai PBS World, 2020). By the end of April
and throughout the confusion, governmental health hotlines were overwhelmed,
and there was a significant amount of reports on suicides directly linked to
Covid-19 (Coconuts Bangkok, 2020).Some of those considered most vulnerable to
Covid-19 are public transport workers, such as bus, taxi, and motorbike taxi
drivers. Besides their health being under constant threat, their incomes have
largely been compromised due to lack of supply of clients. One case in point
is Mahidol University. When the university’s main campus in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom,
suspended its lectures in March, local motorbike taxi drivers found
themselves in a life-changing situation: With people being absent from
university, there was no longer a sustainable income. A motorbike taxi driver
called Laen based in Salaya explained his daily April net profit never
exceeded THB50 (US$1.54) for half a day of work. In a non-pandemic world, he
would have earned at least five times as much.While the work of a motorbike
taxi driver might not be considered ideal by many young Thais, Laen loves his
job for a specific reason: ‘’Being a motorbike taxi driver means to have
freedom. My job is difficult, because I have to work outdoors when it’s hot.
But at least I have the freedom to work.’’ Despite the fact that he is an
eligible candidate for the government’s aid, Laen has not received one baht
so far. Therefore, as much as anyone else in the Global South, the solution
is to resort to other types of labour when the state fails to provide
accurate protection, and financially relying on family, friends and
neighbours is no option. In Laen’s case, he is earning extra money on the
side from raising and selling chicken. However, he says that neither this
income is sufficient ever since the government suspended chicken fights due
to Covid-19.This dilemma shows an essential issue around Covid-19 and
labourers in Thailand: While a lot of conversations revolve around the loss
of jobs in general, not many people talk about how this pandemic is pushing
workers into secondary labour that is equally unsustainable. When workers
find themselves in a position where no labour provides for a living, it sheds
a light on the desperation of many who eventually resort to committing
suicide. This, however, shall not be the final conclusion to an argument, but
rather a reminder of the state’s undeniable failure to protect, respect and
promote human rights, including the right to work and the right to life.The
example of Laen is just one of millions of Thais who are facing situations to
which there seem to be hardly any long-term, sustainable solutions. While
some were pushed to end their lives, others are still hopeful. Laen’s dreams
have not yet perished: ‘’What I still dream about is that one day I will have
enough money to open my own restaurant.’’ But for this to happen, Prime
Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government needs to step up its game and
reassure the physical, social and financial wellbeing of its citizens – among
many other things.Bibliography:Bangprapa,
Mongkol (2020). ‘Relief cash only covers a month: Govt awaits law to expand
aid, PM says’’. Bangkok Post, 16 April. Available at:
<https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1900595/relief-cash-only-covers-a-month>
.Burton, Jack (2020). ‘Government only has enough to pay 5,000 baht aid
package for 1 month – PM’. The Thaiger, 16 April.
Available at: <https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/cv19-asia/cv19-thailand/government-only-has-enough-to-pay-5000-baht-aid-package-for-1-month-pm>
.Coconuts Bangkok (2020). ‘At breaking point, Thailand’s poor are killing
themselves’. Coconuts Bangkok, 23 April. Available at:
<https://coconuts.co/bangkok/news/at-breaking-point-thailands-poor-are-killing-themselves/>
.Google News (2020). ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’. Google
News
, 4 May. Available at: <https://news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=en-US&gl=US&ceid=US:en>
.Thai PBS World (2020). ‘PM apologizes for miscommunication about 5,000 baht
subsidies’. Thai PBS World, 16 April 2020. Available at:
<https://www.thaipbsworld.com/pm-apologizes-for-miscommunication-about-5000-baht-subsidies>
.Theparat, Chatrudee (2020). ‘Cash handouts for informal workers’.
Bangkok Post, 25 March. Available at: <https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1885640/cash-handouts-for-informal-workers>
.——————————————- Joana is
currently a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Human Rights & Peace
Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand. Focusing on the Cambodian garment
sector, her dissertation assesses interpretations around the concept of
‘rights’ through the lens of existing laws, garment workers and employers, and
the resulting challenges to fully realising labour rights in the country.
Joana has made extensive work and living experiences in Cambodia and
Thailand, and she has researched and written about a variety of human rights
issues in ASEAN and beyond. You can reach Joana via email (itsjoanamaria@gmail.com)
and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanamaria/).

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