Expats in Thailand fearing blame for the coronavirus pandemic

Expats in Thailand fearing blame for the coronavirus pandemic

Expats in Thailand fearing blame for the coronavirus pandemic

Bangkok’s expatriate community are worried about their security as much as they’re worried about covid-19.

Amongst Bangkok’s huge expat community, it’s difficult to determine which is causing most stress – the coronavirus pandemic itself or the feeling they’re no longer wanted. Prejudice against Westerners has always lurked under the surface of the Land of Smiles, but most expats learn to live with the slight discomfort of wondering whether or not they’re really welcome, especially in Bangkok.

Nowadays, less than friendly governmental comments are hitting hard on an expat population already fearing infection or worse. Early last month, the Thai Public Health Minister was reported in a number of English language on and offline newspapers as having blasted foreigners in general for not wearing masks, adding they should be ‘kicked out of the country’. Several days later in a Twitter account registered in the minister’s name, a comment referring to unmasked expats as ‘dirty’ and ‘more likely to spread the disease than are Asians’ caused anger and dismay amongst the expat community, most of whom were obeying the World Health Organisation’s guidelines that masks should only be worn by medics and those who’d caught the virus.

Expat forums were quick to catch on to the general feeling that the minister had gone too far, and one non-mask-wearing Western diplomat told reporters he’d been shouted at by an armed sentry outside an army barracks in Bangkok. At the same time, expats were reporting being disallowed the purchase of masks as they were all being kept for Thais. Eventually, the dichotomy was solved by supermarkets’ and shops’ hygiene policies forcing all shoppers to cover their lower faces.

Masks or no masks, expat problems didn’t stop there as hardline immigration officers refused to extend visitor visas even although travellers had no way of leaving the country or of entering their home country without being quarantined. The result was predictable, with immigration offices crammed solid with trapped expats and long lines outside unable to socially distance themselves as there was no room. Immigration officers were as much at risk as expats, especially when even harsher requirements were announced. At that point, Thailand’s PM agreed to approve automatic tourist visa extensions as a measure to avoid long queues and risks to health, but nothing has happened, with the rule, it seems, still under discussion and the queues still forming.

Even more worrying for expats and visitors alike is the local anger of Thais who agree with the Health Minister’s xenophobic comments about foreigners. Many, it seems, actually believe the virus was brought into Thailand by Westerners rather than through tourist flights from China’s Wuhan city, with ‘dirty farangs’ also responsible for the lockdowns and job losses.

For expats who’ve lived long-term in Thailand, the above wasn’t exactly a surprise but, for tourists and short-term visitors desperate to get back to their home countries, being stranded here as well as being attacked verbally can cause justifiable reactions which only make matters far, far worse. How this is all going to end is anyone’s guess, but for those not clued in to Thai culture and its reactions it’s best to smile sweetly and walk away before the situation gets out of control. The effect of face to face xenophobia on Thailand’s future as a tourism hub has yet to unfold, as has that of an economic crisis worse than that in 2008.

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