Thailand: The Coronavirus Suicides (The Diplomat)

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Scholars warn that the number of people driven to suicide by economic hardship could exceed the number of COVID-19 deaths if the government doesn’t react

I published this article previously in The Diplomat.

Locals affected by the anti-coronavirus government measures wait for free meals in the rain in Bangkok, Thailand, April 29, 2020.

The Coronavirus Suicides

In late April, Anyakan was treated urgently at a hospital in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, after swallowing rat poison in front of the Finance Ministry to protest a lack of financial aid. She was desperate and saw no hope of authorities listening to her pleas after she was denied 5,000 baht (about $154) in aid during one of the most difficult weeks of her life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, the aid payments were billed by the Thai government as the “No One Left Behind” program.

Anyakan had been yelling “nobody cares about me” outside the entrance to the ministry. After being ignored again, she swallowed a few pills of poison, and fell to the ground. After she was hospitalized, she was visited by representatives of the cabinet who promised to transfer the money as soon as they can.

Her attempted suicide is part of a worrying trend, as the economic distress caused by the coronavirus is leading more and more Thais into despair.

The local media have published very sad cases in recent weeks, such as the story of Irada, a mother of two children from Maha Sarakham, a province in the northeast of the country, who hanged herself on April 21 after having problems supporting her two young children. Irada generally made a living selling yogurt from a small cart. She was already in a difficult situation even before the movement restrictions, imposed to stop the spread of the virus, left her without clients.

A day before Irada’s death, a 41-year-old father took his life, his 5-year-old daughter also died. Their bodies were found by police floating in the Pa Sak river in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. Residents told police that the father had been unemployed and could not find a job to earn an income. A witness said he heard the father jump into the water first, and his crying daughter followed next.

Thailand is well known for having one of the highest wealth inequalities in the world and one of the highest suicide rates in Southeast Asia. In fact, suicide ranks second among the non-natural causes of death in the country, after traffic accidents, and is more common than homicide, according to government.

study by the World Health Organization based on 2016 data listed Thailand as having the 32nd highest annual suicide rate in the world, with 14.4 suicides for every 100,000 population, equivalent to 10,000 deaths by suicide per year. Thailand had more suicides per capita than any other Southeast Asian country, with the next highest rate found in Myanmar (9.5 suicides per 100,000 population).

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the accompanying economic devastation, has only worsened the situation. In April, a group of academics urged the government to make financial aid more inclusive, claiming that the loss of jobs, and the closure of businesses, has created a desperate situation for many Thais. The scholars are Atthajak Sattayanurak of Chiang Mai University’s Humanities Faculty; Somchai Preechasilpakul, an associate professor of constitutional law at Chiang Mai University; and Prapas Pintobtaeng, lecturer of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

These professionals started to study suicides in the kingdom a few weeks after the government imposed emergency measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, at the end of March. Based on the results of their research, there have been at least 38 suicide attempts linked to the lockdown, and job losses during the crisis, as of the end of April. Of those, 28 people died.

The scholars warned that the number of suicide cases caused by economic repercussions could even exceed the number of coronavirus deaths if the government does not react quickly. Fifty-four people had died from COVID-19 in Thailand as of April 30 (as of this writing the number of deaths is up to 56. The disease itself has largely been controlled, however, while the economic consequences will still be felt for a long time.

People with fewer resources have been the hardest hit since the country confirmed the first positive case outside China on January 13. Health officials say their mental health hotline is receiving an unprecedented barrage of calls. In March alone, for example, the Department of Public Health received 600 calls, compared to just 20 and 40 in each of the previous two months, and the number has continued to increase.

Andrea Giorgetta, Asia director of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), explained, “The coronavirus outbreak has simply exacerbated the economic problems that large segments of the Thai population have faced since General Prayut Chan-o-cha took power in the 2014 military coup.” Prayut is the current prime minister, after winning a controversial election in 2019.

Giorgetta said that mismanagement of the Thai economy by Prayut administrations, both past and present, has been evident. In his words, “the military and the elites are the ones that have benefited the most from more than five years of government of the military junta” — if not the only ones who have benefited at all.

“Many Thais are also infuriated by the fact that while the government is seemingly unable to adopt an effective, robust, short-term relief package to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus, it continues to pursue aggressive procurement of military hardware and questionable large infrastructure and investment projects, such as the Eastern Economic Corridor,” Giorgetta added.

According to the National Statistics Office, 54.3 percent of Thailand’s workforce of 37.5 million people are informal workers. These people receive irregular income, with low wages, and are unprotected by the social security system, leaving them in a very vulnerable position.

The team of scholars said local authorities should come up with a plan to distribute food and basic goods to people severely affected by the ailing economy. It also suggested that businesses in low-risk areas should be allowed to reopen.

The kingdom started to ease restrictions on May 3. Hair salons, restaurants, and street-food stalls came back to life, while maintaining social distancing. A night curfew, which bans people from leaving their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., remains in place.

The team pointed out that while the government holds daily press briefings on the COVID-19 situation and mobilizes resources to slow the spread of the virus, “it fails to address” the issue of suicide, which could have been prevented with financial assistance to distressed people.

“Suicide cases indicate the government’s gross failure in handling the situation,” the scholars argued. If the kingdom does not consider the virus’s socioeconomic impacts, Thailand “may see more suicide cases.”

As of this writing, 28.8 million people have already applied for the 5,000 baht subsidy, but only 13.4 million qualified, leaving millions of Thais in a desperate situation, with many protesting the decision. Of those eligible, 11 million have already received the money into their account. According to the local press, quoting Lawan Saengsanit, spokesman for the Finance Ministry, the remaining 2.4 million will receive their first payment this week.

Anyakan, the woman who poisoned herself in front of the ministry, was initially one of those rejected.