Bangkok. Pandemic Journal. Day 3. 24 March 2020
Updated: Mar 25
I arrived wearing a N95 mask at the Canadian Embassy about 8.30 a.m. I needed a letter for visa renewal purposes. The consular office opened at 9.00 a.m. All of the security wore masks. A half dozen people were inside in the waiting room when I arrived. Most were tourists who’d been stranded due to the many air flight cancellations. The aviation business is in chaos.
They’d come to the embassy as their entry visas were scheduled to expire before they could fly back to Canada. They worried that overstaying on a visa might cause them a problem. That was a well-founded assumption. You can be sent to Immigration Jail for an overstayed visa. Not a good place to loiter during a pandemic. Everyone in the waiting area talked through their mask, while keeping an appropriate social distance as they exchanged information about their flights. No one seemed in a panic. Call it anxiety. Heighten concern. The tourists were in a hurry to leave the country and return to Canada with its universal healthcare system. There I was seeking a letter that would allow me to renew my visa to stay in Thailand another year. Someone was obviously a fool in the high stakes game of virus roulette. I’m glad there wasn’t a mirror. I wouldn’t have wanted to see my reflection in that mirror.
After getting the embassy letter, I went to Terminal 21, a vast shopping mall, at Asoke and Sukhumvit Road. The shopping mall is based on an international airport and global portal themes. Terminal 21, in a pandemic, appeared as a particularly ironic structure. Rather than entrances, this shopping mall used a different designation the point of entry: Gates. This ensured to bring home the airport theme. Much like the main airport, the number of people in the mall were small. Only one gate was open. Gate 1 which was close the escalator leading down to the supermarket. I saw that the Dairy Queen was open. But I didn’t see anyone eating ice cream. The vendors at tables in the main floor area in front of the supermarket looked like hospital surgeons in masks, plastic head covers and gowns. Despite the precautions, there were a handful of customers. No queue at the checkout. The cashiers all wore masks.
The congestion on the roads, pavements, and public transport platforms was 4.00 a.m. on Sunday morning light. There were cars and people moving. But the numbers were small. Village size numbers in a city with 12 million residents. The thinning of crowds usually happens over Songkran — the Thai New Year — where the tradition of soaking each other with water from the barrel of a high-powered water weapon has gained international attention. Songkran has been cancelled. Most conference, meetings and events have been cancelled. The restaurants and bars are closed. Offices are open. Hotels are empty. People in droves have lost their jobs. The informal economy has been closed. Only the public parks which are only a few remain open.
The realization of the seriousness is beginning to dawn on people. They are scared. No one has levelled with them that this is only the beginning of what is coming. Day 1 of this Journal there were a 188 cases, the next day there were 122 confirmed cases, and today 106 more cases. The daily numbers are deceptive. They tell a story that leaves out the elephant in the room: these are not numbers that tell the story of how this virus is spreading exponentially. Bluntly, the daily numbers for the last three days are not reliable indicators of what lies in store. This isn’t fearmongering. It’s math. And it is one time in your life you had better pay attention to the math lessons that are circulating on social media.
Short of a severe lockdown Chinese style, the SAR-CoV2 virus will be dispersed in Thailand. The thousands of Thais who crowd the main Mor Chit bus station to head upcountry. They’ve lost their jobs or are scared. What is more human than at the time of crisis to want to go home? There is no social distancing at the bus stations or on the buses. Among the returnees, the statistics suggest, will be a number who are shedding the virus and those around them are picking up that virus. Most people either will not experience a dry cough or fever or will have a mild version of COVID-19. But they can spread the virus to others and those people may have a severe, life-threatening case.
I’m writing a journal during the time of the Great Upheaval brought on by a novel new virus SAR-CoV2 that emerged like a rabbit out of a magician’s top hat. The name recognition of this new star in the virus wars is the disease known as COVID-19 — which is the name of the disease you have once infected with SAR-CoV2. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/new-coronavirus-stable-hours-surfaces
Tonight the expectations are running high that the Thai government will declare a state of emergency. Having lived through martial law in 1992, 2010 and 2014, I have experience of what that means to freedom of expression and movement. Messages and information that the government doesn’t like are censored; the authors warned, reeducated or jailed. Enforcement is always an issue. Most of us only need the idea of a gun pointed at us to understand that behavior and attitude must be modified. Or else. That’s left to your imagination which is now caged and running free inside a confined space.
What I can say and can’t will change in a few hours from writing these words. What those changes will be and how they will work out remains to be seen. Everything about this pandemic has taught us that we’ve lost all the guardrails. We are walking, slipping and sliding on black ice like a drunk finding his way home in Vancouver in winter. We know the right direction. Unfortunately we no longer have traction or the certainty we can control our movement.
This is a time of grave doubt. Leaders are scrambling to find the right set of policies and the right personnel to oversee the implementation. Nothing in their political career or life has prepared most of them for this moment. Only a few political systems have responded in a fashion that appears to have worked. At least so far. We have the Chinese model of severe lockdown and the South Korean, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Singapore which imposed a less intrusive model. The latter countries showed that a government can be effective without going to the extreme of the Chinese example. No one should be complacent in calling this a victory. It is too soon in this virus war to declare it has been defeated.
A transition of power is never easy at the best of times. We should be worried about who has the power and how that power is exercised, monitored, audited, evaluated and adjusted. Unless specialist experts and scientists are given a significant role to play in what is rolling out, imposing emergency measures tailored for entirely different crises will not necessarily work. This isn’t the usual political battle between factions joined in a struggle for power; it is a much bigger battle. The enemy is invisible. There is no frontline. You are in no man’s land. There is no safe zone outside your fox hole. It is all incoming rounds. Day and night. The only army that matters is made up of doctors and nurses and support medical personnel, working in the labs the technicians who keep the ventilators working, the suppliers of essential medical equipment from gloves, gowns, masks, headcovers. The old idea of a military and its missions needs a major overhaul to fight this war.
In the fog of war, with an enemy in the billions, on a battlefield spreading all around you, and the defenses against the enemy limited, you have a choice. Stay in isolation or run the gauntlet of the many infected outside your door to chat with a friend, go to work, walk into a supermarket or takeout and hope that you don’t picked up the virus.
The hard news is this: COVID-19 is highly contagious. This isn’t the flu. Or a cold like rate of transmission. The virus hangs around in the air and on surfaces for a long time. It is using us to occupy our ecology. It is gradually taking over our entire environment. This Day 3 is still the early stage. When we have a chance to act. When there is some hope based on the example of South Korean and the handful of other countries. This doesn’t have to be a done deal of surrendering to being overrun by the virus. The economic will take a blow no matter whether the government acts or not. That shouldn’t be the prevailing concern now.
No one can fully imagine what the middle and later stages will look like. All of the science is pointing to the same conclusion: unless the exponential curve is bent, thousands will die in Thailand and many millions will die worldwide. The old economy is going to be a casualty of this war no matter how it is fought. We have to stop trying to cling to a way of problem-solving and arranging priorities. If the emergency decree empower the experts to define and find solutions, we will have learned that such extreme power and authority does have a place. If the emergency decree is used as a measure to force compliance with the old mindset and way of doing things controlling what message scientists are allowed to say and report, we will be in for a rough ride through the battlefield.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times has written that scientists have identified about 7,000 viruses. “In recent years, scientists have discovered that the world of virus diversity — what they sometimes call the virosphere — is unimaginably vast. They have uncovered hundreds of thousands of new species that have yet to be named. And they suspect that there are millions, perhaps even trillions, of species waiting to be found.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/science/viruses-coranavirus-biology.html
We need to gear up for an extended campaign against a multitude of invisible enemies. As climate change continues to change our relationship with virus, bacteria and fungi, we are entering a new era where we can expect to be under continued attack. The new reality is being formed as we witness how the old network of political, social and economic structures are being tested for resilience and effectiveness. If they fail, no one can say what will replace the failed institutions. It’s too soon to speculate how many states will fail to limited the casualty rate. How will we know which state has succeeded and which has failed?
This is a rare case where nature has built-in referendum on how a government has performed. The vote will be tallied by counting the number of dead.