Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, COVID-19 and how Ban Nam Khem and Thailand reacted. Thailand was the first country after China to report a case of COVID-19. That was January 2020, over the next few weeks the cases in Thailand and around the world started to increase. Then suddenly the fast forward button was hit. We had plans made, special plans such as the first ever Ban Nam Khem end of year prom. The volunteers had all put in so much work. We had a big day at Navy Base planned, cleaning the turtles with all volunteers. A sponsored walk was planned, walking from Ban Nam Khem Tsunami museum to the museum in Khao Lak, the walk was to be along the beach taking 2 full days. Then late March, Thailand took the early decision to what we now know as lockdown. Schools were due to finish on Friday. However the call came on Wednesday that the schools were to close with immediate effect, the Navy Base called on Thursday to say it was closing its gates to all apart from officers.
All volunteers on base were amazing, they completely understood the implications of the virus. They may not have been happy but safety was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Some had plans to travel for several months after, all plans were halted.
We held a social gathering on the Friday evening before all volunteers left.It was a great way for the GVI family to all pull together and celebrate the friendships and impact that everyone had made. Shortly after for safety reasons all GVI hubs were put into hibernation. volunteers, staff and communities safety was paramount.
1st April 2020 Ban Nam Khem introduced a checkpoint, for those of you who have been here you will know there is only one road in and out. The mayor took the lead in organising everything and a rota of volunteers was established, they were supported by healthcare volunteers. Thailand had already issued a rule that face masks must be worn at all times. Get caught without a mask and you will be fined 20,000THB (approx £500/ $640) this was enforced with immediate effect. To enter the village you must be wearing your mask and have your temperature checked. All vehicles were counted along with the number of people. Due to the lack of work, the community was suffering so a food cupboard was started, where people could donate or take food if needed. All of the surplus stock we had at base was donated. I also helped with traffic surveys. It was very well organised with everyone social distancing, using hand sanitiser. This checkpoint was in operation for 2 months. I experienced the community really pulling together and showing just how resilient they are.
Along with international travel bans, inter province travel was also banned. A curfew was put in place, initially it was 10pm – 5am, it was later reduced to 11pm-4am. All but essential shops were closed, inc bars, restaurants, beauty & hair salons to name but a few. Thailand banned the sale of alcohol, we watched as each province enforced the ban. Then the night before Thai New Year / Songkran the ban reached Phang Nga. immediately all sale of alcohol was banned for 4 weeks. Songkran celebrations had been cancelled weeks previous. Again I was shocked to see no one celebrating, the whole community just treated it like another day.
Thailand Public Health service trained volunteers throughout Thailand ensuring that even remote villages had medical assistance and support. Thailand’s healthcare system was ranked 6th in the world in 2019 (according to Healthcare Index by CEOWORLD). However the country would find it very difficult to support high numbers needing specialist care. There is also a high number of migrant and stateless people who don’t have access to Thai healthcare. Therefore prevention to minimise the risk was the strategy that was taken. So far the strategy seems to be working. 58 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, over 80 days since a case was reported in Thailand (exc people in quarantine).
The speed at which Thailand reacted was admirable.Checkpoints sprung up everywhere, checking people’s temperature, checking masks and destinations. 7/11, Big C, and all stores had hand sanitisers, a form for you to give name, time and number, and of course a temperature check. It soon became second nature.
FED, one of our local partners has worked hard throughout, translating advice into Burmese, training health care volunteers, community leaders. Distributing masks, sanitisers, water butts and soap throughout the Phang Nga region including Nam Khem.
The timing of the closure of the schools was as good as it could have been. Schools were due to finish 2 days later, 6/8 weeks of summer holiday ahead. This year the break was extended. Initially when our local Thai Government school reopened on the 1st July it was only kindergarten and grade 6 upwards. Grades 1-6 have just returned. The staged process has worked well. All students wear masks, kindergarten wear face shields, they all have their temperature checked every morning. Prior to school opening, teachers were trained by health care workers, schools were cleaned and prepared for the students’ return. They loved having an extended summer, they took advantage, played in the streets, swam in the ocean and splashed in the river. All is quiet now they are all back to school.
Last year the community started an allotment, growing a wide range of fruit and vegetables, this became a great asset as people had access to locally grown produce, that was high quality and supporting the community. They have now started planting a second location to more than double the produce, a brilliant addition to the village.
The local and wider community has been affected by the lack of tourists, even as lockdown was downgraded there are very few people in the restaurants and bars. Many remain closed waiting for news of when international travel will resume. The knock on effect to the supply chain is also what has affected the village. Ban Nam Khem has a large fishing community. People who sell lobster and fish to restaurants throughout Thailand no longer have orders, they have had to diversify. For example one local is now growing and selling lettuce.
Whilst there has been a large impact on the community, nature has flourished during the break. All National Parks were closed for at least 4 months, a few are still closed. This year has seen the highest number of turtles return to the beaches to lay their eggs, including 11 Leatherbacks. Dolphins have made a visit to the village. All of which is fantastic news, we can’t wait to get back out there to explore.
I am grateful that I have been able to remain in the village throughout, I have felt safe, they have looked out for me, checking on me almost daily. Not long after everyone had left I saw the mayor, he shouted across the street “Vanessa, you stay alone?” “yes” I replied, “you are not alone, you have Nam Khem” was his reply. That has stayed with me over the last 5 months. I appreciate everything we have here. Instead of the usual summer fun, with a base full of volunteers, Service Learning and Under 18’s its been one of reflection, gratitude and hope that everyone stays safe.
I have walked miles on our beach, I have watched countless sunsets, but most importantly I have learnt from the community, I have seen the importance of our work and presence in the village. I am constantly asked by the schools, Bo & Benz, the coffee ladies, Nam and Meme, Tommy, Tiger everyone who knows us in the village when are the volunteers coming back. Thailand still has a ban on all tourist travel, but we wait eagerly for news of when the ban will be lifted. Once it is, we will be here ready to welcome you back to GVI Phang Nga. Until then please stay safe.