The poor can't afford to self-quarantine
Pun is a Grab taxi driver working in Surat Thani province. On March 11, he was called to pick up a male passenger from a hotel and drive him to a hospital in the province, and then drive him back.
Pun remembers few details about the passenger's identity. But he does remember that the man was in his 20s yet looked frail. "He coughed all the time and wore a surgical mask. He looked like he was suffering from a fever," Pun told me in a phone interview.
On March 13, Pun took a call from a provincial health official, who asked him to immediately self-quarantine for 14 days because the passenger had tested positive for Covid-19. It turned out that the passenger was among the "Thong Lor cluster" -- a group of 11 people who drank together at a pub in Bangkok's Thong Lor area and got infected.
I decided to talk to Pun after he first made the news in a story filed by Bangkok Post's veteran political news reporter Mongkol Bangprapa, about a taxi driver who had to rent a motel room to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Talking to him, I found him a good Samaritan.
Pun told me he wanted to help prevent the disease from spreading to more people.
"I don't want to spread the disease to anyone. I want to protect people in my family and society." But self-quarantine -- no matter how easy it might sound -- is burdensome.
Pun lives in a small home along with four others, including his mother-in-law who is frail and suffers from diabetes. If he stayed at the house, he would risk infecting her and the others.
Since the health official offered no advice besides asking him to self-quarantine for 14 days, he was left at a loss.
Pun decided to check in to a motel so as to isolate himself from his family and other people. Almost penniless, he had to borrow money to cover the room cost of 350 baht per night. The sum is a lot for Pun, who earns just 500-700 baht a day. He stayed in self-isolation for just five nights.
Above all, he did not tell the motel about his condition. At that time, he had not taken a Covid-19 test. So, he could potentially spread the disease to others at the motel if he was infected.
But on Monday Pun was tested for the virus. The day after, he was informed that the result came back negative for Covid-19. "So, the official just told me I am not infected. However, I have been asked to continue my self-quarantine until March 25. That is all I was told."
During the few days that he hid in the motel, he said health officials did not come to monitor him or follow up on his location.
Pun then explained to me why he could not complete his self-quarantine.
"I am working class so every working day counts. The 14-day quarantine might be easy for people with enough money. But for poor people like me, staying home means a loss of income," he said.
And what do you do when you are driving your taxi, I asked. How can you know that you are safe from Covid-19? There will always be marginal errors.
"Of course, I wear a face mask all the time and use alcohol-based gel to clean my hands, but I spend a lot of money buying hand sanitiser products," he lamented.
Pun also has something to tell the government.
"The government has released financial aid to companies and individuals and even granted them discounts on electricity and water utility bills. I just wish the government would help low-income people like us who are forced to self-quarantine. There should be something, a measure that enables us to self-quarantine without bothering about money issues."
The plight of people in self-quarantine demonstrates the magnitude of challenges facing the government and the Ministry of Public Health.
I don't dare to judge Pun and his decision to prematurely terminate his self-quarantine. Who am I to judge him? Self-quarantine might sound easy for some, but not for all. And especially not for low-income earners who live in shared houses or city dwellers in one- or two-bedroom condominium units.
Apart from the problem of where to confine themselves, a lot of people -- especially those with limited finances -- will find it difficult to stop working for 14 days when this could mean their families don't get enough food to eat.
Self-quarantine is going to be a big issue in upcoming months when the number of Covid-19 patients increases. A lot of people are expected to adopt "social distancing". Those who develop a fever or are even confirmed infected might be required to self-quarantine at home to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system, whose resources will have to be spared for serious Covid-19 cases only.
But the government needs to do more to help people, particularly those in vulnerable groups, to self-quarantine. Apart from just telling them to stay home and avoid social contact, the government must also prepare free quarantine facilities -- perhaps school gyms.
The state must also provide other safety nets, such as a programme that assigns volunteers to track down people in vulnerable groups and provide them with assistance and guidelines on self-quarantine. The volunteers can help further by handing out hand sanitiser and face masks.
So far, the government has already scattered around financial aid like confetti to shore up businesses and the general public. It's now time for the state to spend money on aiding self-quarantine for those people suspected of having contracted the virus, or at the very least make it easier for them to confine themselves.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor