As Thailand shut down its economy over COVID-19, millions have lost their income and the country has seen a spike in suicide attempts, sometimes as a form of protest. The crisis highlights the country’s deep inequality and points to the need for economic reform as well as a political system that can address people’s needs.
In the last week of April, a security guard in Chachoengsao, a province near Bangkok, hung herself. She was 19 years old and a mother. Before her suicide, she posted a drawing of Prime Minister and former dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha, along with a message blaming his government for the suffering of the country’s poor, saying she could no longer afford milk for her child. Her funeral drew over 100 politicians from the country’s opposition parties.
In Thailand, as in many places, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are not evenly distributed. As lower-income people lose their jobs or a portion of their income, they’re more likely to be unable to pay rent or afford food.
The government instituted a partial lockdown in March, shutting entertainment venues, public places, malls and many markets, as well as cancelling the country’s Songkran New Year’s festival in April. A quarter of the country’s workforce could be unemployed if the situation continues, according to private sector estimates.
As millions are left without income, the country has seen a significant increase in suicides and attempted suicides, often linked to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Mental health has become a global problem during the pandemic but in Thailand—and elsewhere in Southeast Asia—suicide attempts are also a form a protest. A number of the recent cases in Thailand have included direct messages criticizing the government for not doing enough to help those in crisis.
According to a Public Health Department official, the department’s crisis hotline received over 600 calls in March, compared to 20-40 over the previous months. Data from the government’s Mental Health Department show the total number of suicides between March 20 and April 25 was three times higher than it was over the same period in 2019, jumping from 191 to 605.
Thailand’s shutdown highlights the country’s deep crisis of inequality, in which millions of people don’t have the stability to weather the economic impacts and the government remains unable or unwilling to do what’s necessary to support them. The situation points to the need for reform to substantively address inequality, but also to push for a political system in which the government will respond to people’s needs in times of crisis.
Researchers link suicide spike to a lack of government support
A group of academics from Chiang Mai and Chulalongkorn universities is tracing the connection between suicides and the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown. In late April, they released a statement on their data showing that the number of suicides driven by financial hardship could exceed the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Non-comprehensive data from just three weeks in April showed 38 suicides linked to economic hardships and state assistance. By early May, Thailand had seen just over 50 fatalities from COVID-19.
“Suicide cases indicate the government’s gross failure in handling the situation,” the team said. “Some people were driven to take their own lives.”
The researchers said that the government’s measures haven’t alleviated the social and economic damage Thais are experiencing from the lockdown. Following the suicide by the 19-year-old security guard, a spokesman for the government’s Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration said it was “not unexpected.”
“The COVID-19 outbreak has made inequality in Thailand more stark…those in need must be helped across the board and promptly,” said Attachak Sattayanurak, one of the researchers at Chiang Mai University.
Relief package falls short, leaves many without support
On April 27, a taxi driver in Bangkok attempted suicide outside Thailand’s Ministry of Finance. The 59-year-old woman swallowed rat poison, saying she couldn’t afford to make ends meet any longer without help from the government.
A worker at a nearby noodle shop saw the woman take the poison, called an ambulance and got her to the hospital. The woman said she had been excluded from the government’s COVID-19 relief program.
In March, the government announced the first of a series of relief packages, offering anyone whose job has been affected by the pandemic a 15,000 baht (US$462.82) stimulus, spread over three months. As of the end of April, 27 million people had applied for relief and 11 million had received the first of their three monthly payments. The government has also announced that the country’s 10 million farming households are eligible for 5,000 baht (US$154.27) per month from a separate fund.
The government doesn’t have an answer for those who’ve been rejected by the programs, and many who have received a payment say it isn’t enough. Since May 1, thousands of people rejected by the program have lined up in Bangkok to appeal their decisions.
“The public suicide attempt reflected absolute despair of one small person trying to send a message that the government doesn’t take care of ordinary people,” said Attachak.
The impacts of the shutdown are especially severe on the country’s homeless population. Police have arrested a number of unhouse people for violating the nationwide 10 PM–4 AM curfew that was imposed as part of a state of emergency in early April. Violators of the curfew face up to two years in prison and a 40,000 baht fine (US$1,230).
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, police have enforced the law on the homeless without understanding their situation, including the added challenges they face from the economic impacts of COVID-19.
“The lockdown and empty streets mean fewer opportunities for homeless people to earn money,” wrote Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They face stigmatization and accusations of negligently spreading the virus, as well as disobeying government orders.”
In total, the government has approved 2.4 trillion baht (US$74.05 billion) in relief measures, worth over 14% of the country’s GDP. But without structural reforms, the country’s inequality will only grow deeper.
Thailand’s economy needs reforms, not just stimulus
In 2018, Thailand topped Credit Suisse’s global rankings for wealth inequality, with the richest 1% holding nearly 67% of the country’s wealth, and the wealth gap continues to get worse: in 2019, the top 1% held 17.5% more of the country’s wealth than they did in 2000.
The impacts of COVID will only cause this divide to grow wider. The pattern was similar following the 1997 financial collapse: as unemployment rose, so did the country’s GINI coefficient, a common macroeconomic measure of inequality. As journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote recently, “Thailand will remain a deeply unequal society if a poor man’s best hope for drastic economic betterment is to win a state lottery.”
The surge in suicides brought on by COVID-19 indicates that to make it through the pandemic, the Thai government will have to adopt substantial changes to address the country’s wealth gap. Though the country’s cabinet is considering additional relief, this may not be enough when Thailand faces a tinderbox of unemployed workers and an unresponsive government.
“At this stage, the state discussion has yet to go further than the word ‘relief’,” Professor Surichai Wankaew, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said recently, speaking with the Bangkok Post. “People say we’ve successfully contained the virus, but how are we at taking care of people’s lives?”