Technology, human spirit unite to fight global crisis
Though the coronavirus outbreak has already infected more than a million people globally, it cannot dash the invincible spirit of citizens. While embattled leaders take draconian measures to curb the contagion, Thais from all walks of life are rushing to support medical personnel on the frontline, as well as fellow Thais affected by the crisis.
"At first I questioned and pointed fingers at the government and agencies in society as to why they didn't do what I expected. Then I asked myself: What can I do to help," Panachit Kittipanya-ngam, president of Thailand Tech Startup Association (TTSA), said. He added that the aim is to use technology to match supply and demand both for doctors' and people's ends.
Over the month, his project Ped Thai Su Pai (Thai ducks fighting the danger) has helped to screen 100,000 people in Thailand who suspected they might have contracted Covid-19.
Many services drawn from startups under the group's umbrella, including a telehealth consulting platform, medicine delivery and food delivery could ensure at-risk groups stay at home during the outbreak.
The project is a collaboration between 200 Thai startups, agencies and individuals; the government; and the private sector, including hospitals and hotels.
While its chat bots collect suspect patients' data and gives them basic results, Ped Thai Su Pai sends the data to the hospitals and public health system and links suspected patients with doctors and hospitals. People's privacy is respected.
"For high-risk people, we link them with volunteer doctors via robot calls to have a tele-consultation first. Many will feel relieved. For those who are worried, we also link them to psychiatrists," he said.
Anyone highly suspected of being infected according to the online screening will be booked for the tests provided by Chulalongkorn University and Rajavithi Hospital, he said.
After treatment, the platform also connects recovering patients with hotels that volunteer to provide accommodation for them. A range of fees, however, apply.
Protecting the protectors
Khate Sripratak, cardiologist and president of the Chest Disease Institute's medical staff organisation, said he looked at the situation about a month ago and could see a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) looming.
"When the disease passes the incubation period, countries around the world need equipment to fight it but there will be a shortage," Dr Khate said.
"Meanwhile, we have to raise funds and buy supplies ourselves as we cannot wait for the government. Procurement procedures from the state won't make it in time."
Through cooperation of doctors and the fundraising platform, TaejaiDotcom, the group has bought 5,000 PPE items and 3,000 N95 masks.
"We have sent these to the hospitals that need the equipment. This should be enough for a while, but not forever," he said.
Other private movements involving hospitals, individuals and other fundraising platforms such as Socialgiver have also raised funds to procure protective equipment for medical staff. Many used social media to announce their collaborative efforts.
The ban on public gatherings is bringing many businesses to a halt as customers stay at home and go out only when necessary. Sookwasa Chompooming, a wedding decorator and organiser, said her company is adjusting to the partial lockdown by making acrylic boxes and face shields. All will be donated to hospitals upon request.
"It's not fair that medical staff are fighting the pandemic at their own risk," she said. "However, I am not blaming anyone because the outbreak is spontaneous. We can't expect the government to provide some protective gear, especially acrylic boxes, in the first place. We are doing our part to support them."
Ms Sookwasa said she donated seed money to start the project and then created a crowdfunding platform to match supply and demand.
"We produce and sell these facilities at cost" she said. "Thailand Post is helping us deliver them free of charge. As of last Sunday, we can now provide 200 acrylic boxes (30-40 per day) to hospitals nationwide."
As the saying goes, an army marches on its stomach. Medical staff cannot combat the coronavirus unless they are well-fed. Panchana Vatanasathien, the owner of PenLaos restaurant, has launched the "Food for Fighters" campaign for fresh food boxes at 50 baht each.
"We are small people with inspiration. While big people overthink and fail to take action, we fight with our backs against the wall like there is no tomorrow," she said.
Ms Panchana, a former lawyer, said she initiated the project after she noticed some restaurants are struggling with food delivery services in the aftermath of partial lockdowns.
"Accordingly, we are ordering meals from coronavirus-hit restaurants on credit and raising funds in the meantime. We place orders two to three times a week. It can keep these restaurants occupied during the crisis. We can now deliver a maximum of 750 food boxes a day to hospitals in Bangkok and adjacent provinces," she said.
Ms Panchana went on to add the "Food for Fighters" campaign will be scaled up to help vulnerable groups, especially the unemployed and the disabled, and grow into a sustainable social enterprise.
"It is not just doctors, but I think everybody is a fighter. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has endorsed this project. I hope it won't be 'a straw fire' which soon peters out when the pandemic is brought under control."
Dr Khate, who has closely followed the spread of the pandemic since the beginning, highlights three keys to the victory against the virus: Quick testing, effective drugs and social distancing.
Although the drugs are tightly controlled by the Public Health Ministry, Chulalongkorn University and other institutions have helped by providing quicker and more affordable test kits. Meanwhile, everyone can contribute by observing social distancing and helping to take care of the underprivileged.
"People can really help with social distancing and aiding the vulnerable," Dr Khate said. "The middle class may be able to survive, but those depending on a daily income cannot just stay at home. It is necessary that they are surveyed and systematic assistance is provided to them."
Support the vulnerable
Many food sellers announced they were giving free meals to the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
safety first: Workers of a wedding decoration company test out a transparent acrylic box designed to minimise the risk of transmission to healthcare workers. photo:Varuth Hirunyatheb
Not only for the medical staff on the frontline, but TaejaiDotcom also raises funds for residents in Klong Toey slums.
Each 30 baht donated is turned into a coupon which a resident can redeem for a meal at local food shots. This also supports the economy in the community.
Likewise, "Pathum Thani Model: Isolation Quarantine Residence" was inspired by a taxi driver who was deemed at risk of contracting the disease but could not afford to self-quarantine.
A team from Thailand Institute of Justice joined hands with Pathum Thani's public health officials and local communities in providing accommodation to Patients Under Investigation while waiting for lab results, so they do not have to stay in hospitals during their wait.
Pathum Thani Model was organised with the aim of igniting more public-private cooperation to provide safe place options for people at risk.
Isolation facilities will be the first step after basic screening, before admission to hospitals.
Providing such facilities will help reduce the number of patients while also alleviating the workload and risks of the virus spreading in hospitals and to family members.
Educating the public
Dr Tanasarn Phruethisathaphon submitted a letter calling for transparency and devolution in handling the coronavirus outbreak on his own behalf to the Office of the Prime Minister last week.
"The civic sector wants to help out, but we don't have transparent information," he said.
sit quite still: A medic takes a swab sample from a taxi driver in a drive-through facility at the Princ Hospital Suvarnabhumi in Samut Prakan yesterday. The hospital is offering a free Covid-19 test for up to 10 taxi drivers a day until April 10. photo:Somchai Poomlard
Dr Tanasarn urged the government to disclose patients' conditions, whereabouts, and an itinerary to ensure those who come into contact with them will undergo screening and self-isolation.
"Otherwise, we will see a lot of super-spreaders," he said.
"As you know, authorities have yet to reveal the data of those going to the boxing gym and returning upcountry. When some patients post their own data on social media, they end up being dismissed as 'fake news'. Why don't you make use of their history?"
Another problem, Dr Tanasarn said, is the bureaucratic concentration of power in the hands of the Department of Disease Control.
"Hospitals are required to send hard copies to public health officials, but they are not real-time [at the time of publication]. Why don't you devolve some of your duties to other departments? In fact, you can train more staff to help ease the burden," he said.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, misinformation has been passed on to friends and families, for instance, the neutralising effect of sunlight or warm water. Therefore, medical students from 27 countries are now launching the #MoreViralThanTheVirus campaign on Facebook to educate the public about Covid-19.
Kulavee Prasansapakit, a second-year Thai medical student at Liverpool in the United Kingdom, who completed a 14-day quarantine today on her return to Thailand, said being misinformed and taking a complacent attitude are the most disconcerting aspects of the situation for her.
"While my teacher and fifth-year students are authorised by the UK government to work in hospital wards, we can't do anything except raise public awareness," she said.
"Many teenagers believe that those infected with the coronavirus are the elderly with underlying conditions, which is not true at all. Or let's take the example of those wearing face masks, but not washing hands. Everybody can be a super-spreader if you become complacent," she said.