Our new year in Thailand did not get off to an auspicious start. First, we had to buy bottled water because seawater was seeping into the Bangkok water supply. We had to wear N95 masks for days on end because the air was so polluted. Then, COVID-19 showed up in early January in Thailand, the first country outside China to record infections.
We weren’t too concerned at first. But beginning in early March, the total number of confirmed cases grew from double digits to triple digits and then to four digits. In the middle of the month, the government finally began to take the coronavirus seriously by implementing social distancing, quarantining Thais returning from overseas, and shutting down most of the country. The government also banned alcohol sales from April 11 until May 3. We were fortunate that we’d stocked up on wine,
There was one large crowd I could not avoid. On March 10, I had to go to Immigration to renew my visa. While I tried to be judicious about dipping into our dwindling supply of masks collected before the current outbreak, I used my best-quality mask ( N95 ) for the occasion. When I got to Immigration more than 30 minutes before the office opened, there were already hundreds of foreigners lined up for their chance to be packed into an overcrowded office. Fortunately, I was able to finish in just 4 hours. From what I read in the following weeks, the crowds grew even larger because flights home were canceled and foreigners needed to extend short-term visas to avoid onerous overstay fines. Finally, in late April, the government relented and gave foreigners automatic visa extensions until the end of July.
In mid-March, my Thai partner and I retreated to his house outside Bangkok. We were pretty isolated with our dog, he cooked many great meals (lots of Western dishes containing eggs, salmon and chicken, since we don’t eat our fellow mammals), and we both worked in the yard and avoided the anxiety that accompanies daily life in the city. We enjoyed our breakfasts in the garden. My partner designed clothing for his next collection. I set a goal of reading Hilary Mantel’s final, voluminous volume in the Wolf Hall trilogy, read the Times online and kept track of friends and relatives, We shared the privilege of walking our Pug twice a day, and, like so many people, watched a lot of Netflix series.
A couple of times per week, we drove into the city to water our plants, do laundry, and restock groceries. At such times my anxiety levels peaked, because we again had to push elevator buttons that potentially hosted deadly germs, and we had to handle possibly infected packages at the grocery store,
We realized that we were much more fortunate than many, many people around the world, a realization driven home by the experience of a high school classmate who contracted COVID-19 and spent 5 weeks in a hospital, including 2 very difficult weeks in the ICU. Her discharge from the hospital was perhaps the most uplifting news of our entire time in isolation.
After a week at the end of April when the government reported daily increases of confirmed cases in the single digits, Thailand started to reopen, though more slowly than appears to be the case in most of the United States. On May 2, we returned to our condo in the city, and, on May 4, my partner and his seamstresses returned to work. Wearing a mask is still required to enter shops and to use public transportation, hand sanitizer is ubiquitous, and clerks with thermometers still greet customers at many stores. It is disappointing that we probably won’t be able to travel to the US later this year but we are hopeful that Thailand, which has recorded about 3,000 cases of infection and fewer than 60 deaths, may have seen the worst of this pandemic. Like people everywhere, we still don’t know if there has been adequate testing.
George (Chip) Rothschild is a retired lawyer who has lived in Bangkok since the end of 2010. Before retiring, he worked as an in-house lawyer for a US-based oil and gas company, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively for his job. His final assignment took him to Jakarta, where he lived and worked in 2009 and 2010.