BANGKOK: As Thailand’s medical system struggles beneath a surge of COVID-19 cases, ordinary people are helping to plug the gaps, risking their own health to bring care and supplies to often terrified, exhausted patients who have fallen through the cracks.
In the Saimai area of Bangkok, Ekapob Laungprasert’s team heads out for another weekend on the frontlines of a crisis.
His volunteer group, Saimai Will Survive, has been working around the clock, responding to about a hundred SOS calls daily from desperate COVID-19 patients unable to get the help they need.
“We realise how hardworking and how tired doctors and nurses are,” says the 38-year-old businessman. “What we are trying to do today is to help relieve some of the burden. Before, all cases must go to the hospital, so today there are no hospital beds. So we volunteer to help out.”
A volunteer from the Saimai Will Survive group in protective gear talks to a woman infected with COVID-19 on her condition while checking her blood pressure and blood oxygen levels, Jul 23, 2021, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: AP/Tassanee Vejpongsa)
It is not long before they are in action: Malee, a COVID-19 positive woman whose breathing has suddenly worsened. The group, wearing personal protective equipment, delivers oxygen and much-needed reassurance to Malee and her husband, an army officer who also has the virus.
“I lost hope even with the army. I called doctors at field hospitals. All they told me to do was to send information, just send information,” Worawit Srisang said.
“I got the same answers everywhere. At least these guys visit us in person. What the patient needs is a chance to see a doctor, not just send information.”
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Thailand’s predicament is stark. Around 15,000 new cases are confirmed each day and still more people are getting infected. In Bangkok alone, 20,000 people are waiting for a hospital bed.
So homespun heroes like Ekapob and his group – buying equipment and supplies with public donations – are an essential safety net, gaining crucial time for both patients and a healthcare system under severe strain.
A member of the volunteer Saimai Must Survive Group prepares a home oxygen concentrator to help a woman infected with the COVID-19 with difficulty breathing, Jul 24, 2021, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: AP/Tassanee Vejpongsa)
There is another call: An elderly woman with COVID-19 symptoms. But she is not fit to wait in line for hours at an overwhelmed test centre, so for the moment she is stuck where she is.
“Grandma can’t get tested, so she lies sick in bed. If we want to send her to the hospital, they will ask for her test result. So we are back in a circle, because we would ask them to do the test,” Ekapob says, looking in through the window.
It is very likely she has COVID-19. All her family members have already tested positive.
After a check, his team members decide she is not in imminent danger. They hook her up with oxygen, then it is back into the night and on to the next case.
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There is a raging debate in Thailand now over the national vaccination roll-out. Many Thais are angry over the slow pace and a perceived lack of accountability for the fact that only around 5 per cent of the population currently is fully protected.
The volunteers see the consequences almost every night.
A volunteer from the Saimai Will Survive group in protective gear prepares an oxygen tank to help a woman infected with COVID-19 breathe at her home, Jul 24, 2021, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: AP/Tassanee Vejpongsa)
They are called to 52-year old Nittaya Kongnuch, who like so many is struggling to breathe normally.
As they try to make her more comfortable, her sister tells an increasingly familiar story. Their mother died last week from the virus, as their urgent calls for help to brimming hospitals went unheeded.
“My mother showed bad symptoms from the beginning. I called and called to tell them my mom couldn’t handle this anymore, but nobody came. The nurses kept saying there were no beds,” said Piyawan Kodduang, fighting back tears.
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Most fatalities occur in private. But not all. Last week, a body lay for hours in a Bangkok street, incurring the wrath of an embarrassed prime minister.
A volunteer from the Saimai Will Survive group prepares an oxygen tank to help a woman infected with COVID-19 with difficulty breathing at her home, Jul 23, 2021, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: AP/Tassanee Vejpongsa)
On Saturday night, Ekapob and his team see exactly how that can happen, as they are called to a homeless woman who is showing signs of infection.
As wary residents watch from a distance, the team moves in to carry out a rapid test.
Within a few minutes they have the result: Positive.
After making some phone calls, Ekapob finds her a place in a facility where she can be observed while awaiting a bed in a field hospital.
At least she has a fighting chance. Without the volunteers, it is likely she would not have any.
Thailand has had 497,302 cases of COVID-19 and 4,059 deaths since the pandemic began.
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