As the health authorities race against time to tackle the Klong Toey cluster, another crisis is looming in the country's biggest slum.
Due to overcrowding that makes social distancing hard, and poor sanitary conditions, Covid-19 spread quickly after the first cases associated with the Thong Lor cluster were detected, with contagion going at alarming an rate of 4.5%.
Many were infected while waiting for a family member to be transferred from their home to the hospital. The outbreak has caused many problems for community members. Some have lost relatives, others have had to take care of family members in critical condition, taking on the financial burden as they struggle to make ends meet.
Even those recovering from the virus cannot resume a normal life immediately as they are required to complete a 14-day quarantine. Such requirements may be possible for state officials or company workers with a monthly salary who can adopt the work-from-home module, but it is difficult for people who earn a living through hard labour, mostly on the daily minimum wage. Until now, no state agencies have a plan to deal with this tough economic issue affecting a large group of Klong Toey's community dwellers.
Moreover, a number of businesses are facing crunch time as a result of state restrictions, including a ban on dine-ins at restaurants and constant closures of markets, which are a major source of employment for the Klong Toey community. Under such unfavourable circumstances, those businesses have to adopt cost-cutting measures and have dismissed some workers.
One problem that cannot be ignored is the social stigma. It must be admitted that Klong Toey is a residential area for low-paid workers. But after emerging as the virus epicentre, an accompanying social stigma may cost these workers their jobs as employers may dismiss them to prevent Covid transmission.
Prateep Ungsongtham, a prominent slum leader, said the Klong Toey community now depends entirely on donations, such as food and necessities. There is no assistance from the state.
Despite Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang soliciting help, recruiting volunteers in various fields such as medical services and food distribution, City Hall is one step behind the problem.
At the same time, the government has designed its relief package to curb economic hardship and boost consumption. Yet the financial package fails to address social and economic impacts that low-income community dwellers are subject to. Apparently, there is a big gap in state help that must urgently be addressed.
For instance, state agencies must provide a support system to enable those affected by the virus to resume a normal life, or a campaign against social stigma through education, ensuring that everyone remains on high guard against the virus.
As a saying goes, it's better late than never. On the contrary, the state must think about a relief package that is practical enough for this highly vulnerable group, and also one that addresses mental recovery, to ease the devastation and prevent drug use and suicide. Needless to say, the slum communities have hard times ahead, as hope for employment or re-employment is dim and the virus continues to rage. Without jobs or income, there could be higher crime rates affecting other groups of society.
The state must work out, with the help of other sectors, a medium- and long-term job creation plan for this vulnerable group to prevent any further social turbulence.