A return to the old ways
Thais hit by Covid-19 are turning to religion for moral support
With the Covid-19 outbreak keeping people apart, some communities in the kingdom are returning to religion for comfort and guidance during hard times.
Buddhism was once a dominant force in Thai society, but urbanisation and social changes in this modern world reduced the importance of temples and monks.
However, signs are starting to emerge that Thais are once again turning to religion during this outbreak. Some temples across the kingdom are now playing leading roles in helping local communities survive the economic hardship the Covid-19 lockdown has brought.
Aside from free meals for poor people, temples and monks are reasserting their role as a key source of moral support for those in need, according to Tewan Liptapallop, the Prime Minister's Office Minister.
Temples in the past served as a centre for every Buddhist community, he said, addingthat monasteries were often built before communities sprouted around them.
Monks back then offered medical treatment through the use of herbal medicine, educated children, resolved disputes, offered moral support and even named newborn babies, Mr Tewan said.
When Thailand had a major cholera outbreak about 200 years ago, monks were not able to treat every sick person, but were able to serve as the main source of moral support for everyone, he added.
Nowadays, many temples only serve as tourist attractions, said the minister, pointing to Wat Arun Ratchawararam in Bangkok, which had more than 3,000 visitors a day before the coronavirus pandemic hit the tourism industry.
But people are now returning to the old ways.
Mr Tewan said Wat Arun Ratchawararam has been turned into a coordination centre for some state agencies responsible for distributing food and relief packages to people in need.
The temple has plenty of space to ensure social distancing when a large number of people come for free food and basic necessities, he said, adding visitors tend to have more respect for monks than state officials.
Mr Tewan also noted that Wat Arun Ratchawararam also doubles as a complaint centre that receives feedback from people and relays it back to relevant agencies.
Before the government invoked the emergency decree to contain coronavirus transmissions, the Supreme Patriarch donated 2 million baht for the purchase of face masks and hand sanitiser he said.
The items were distributed to monks at temples in areas hard hit by Covid-19 such as Bangkok and Chon Buri, Mr Tewan added.
When people started losing their jobs with businesses under lockdown, the Sangha Supreme Council set up soup kitchens in temples in the capital to offer free food and accommodation to people who needed them, he said.
The minister said about 900 temples across the kingdom were doing the same and over 500 million baht has been spent providing free food to Thais nationwide affected by the outbreak.
"Concerned about the possibility of plastic waste rising as a result of such massive food giveaways, the council has asked temples to use biodegradable and reusable food containers," Mr Tewan said.
While some temples are offering help to people, others are struggling to survive during the outbreak.
Before the outbreak some temples relied heavily on donations from tourists. Now that they have all gone, monks have had to fend for themselves as they have no one else to turn to, the minister said.
Mr Tewan said the Office of National Buddhism has been forced to divert more than 20 million baht from a fund earmarked for training courses and seminars to help monks who are affected by the outbreak's economic impact.
Many monks are making adjustments to their lifestyle to cope with Covid-19 hardships.
Phra Khru Samutwatchara Phatthathammok, a deputy abbot at Wat Rakhang Khositaram, said monks at his temple are now trying to conduct their daily routines by following the "new normal".
Daily prayers are still being held, but all monks wear face masks and practise social distancing, Phra Khru Samutwatchara said, adding signs have been put up to warn visitors that masks are to be worn inside the temple at all times.
And to avoid unnecessary gatherings, the monks have learned to utilise online communication for some temple activities, he said.
Prayers are now broadcast live via the temple's Facebook page, meetings are held on Facebook and dhamma discussions are carried out through the Line mobile application, Phra Khru Samutwatchara said.
Like other major temples in Bangkok, Wat Rakhang Khositaram also has a soup kitchen that offers free meals to people, including medical workers at Siriraj and Thonburi hospitals, police officers, road sweepers, taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi drivers, the monk said.
He said the temple prepares 500 boxed meals per day and has them delivered to people in need.
"In this crisis, we have witnessed a great deal of hospitality and the still-strong-bond between Buddhism and Thais," Phra Khru Samutwatchara said.
However, unlike larger city temples, daily life at smaller ones in remote areas has not changed much in response to the coronavirus.
Wat Pa Phum Kham, a monastery in Ubon Ratchathani's Sri Muang Mai district, about 100 kilometres from the Lao border, still relies on alms being collected every morning from the nearby community of about 100 residents.
No one wears a face mask in this community, neither do the monks, said Phra Thanadhammo Bhikkhu, a 53-year-old monk who has been at the temple for 10 years.
"The only difference is that now there is no invitation for monks to offer blessings outside of the temple," he said.
"There are also no forest pilgrimages, inter-district or province travel and festive celebrations. Funeral prayers are limited to one session per day," he added.