Ever had the feeling you’re not wanted at the moment?
The trouble began in early last month when Thailand’s mercurial Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul blasted “all farang” (a derogatory term for white-westerner), for not wearing face masks, adding offenders “should be kicked out of Thailand”. (He was at a PR event handing out free masks to travellers at the Siam BtS station).
A few days later a Twitter account registered to his name doubled down, criticising “dirty” unmasked Westerners who were “more likely to spread the disease than Asians”.
The account was quickly deleted but the message was loud and xenophobic – and also ran counter to World Health Organisation advice at the time. The global body declared that, to prevent shortages, masks should only be worn by Covid-19 sufferers and medics, and that good hand hygiene was the best defense against the virus. Thai hospitals were indeed complaining of mask shortages at the time.
Expat forums lit up with complaints that farang were being singled out in public for not wearing masks. A western diplomat told Thai PBS World that he was shouted at by an armed sentry for leaving his face uncovered as he strolled passed a Bangkok barracks.
There were also plenty of cases where expats and visitors in Thailand were denied the sale of a face mask, being told the “masks were only for Thai people”.
Yet not all expats were comfortable with the bare-faced look being advocated by the WHO and Western media.
“As a farang, I’m embarrassed that while almost every Thai is responsibly wearing a face mask, many foreigners aren’t,” said Alan Simon, a 61 year old Australian retired software developer living in Bangkok.
“I don’t know if it’s ignorance or complacency, but I fear the toll is going to surge soon. I’m in a high-risk age group so I’m definitely not taking any chances.”
The mask controversy was eventually solved not by Anutin’s ranting, but by hygiene policies implemented by shops and supermarkets, forcing shoppers to cover up their face. It simply became ‘expected’ that everyone would wear a face mask anytime they were in public, and the vast majority of visitors and expats were happy to comply with the public will, and later, direct orders.
But foreigners are now facing more serious problems than just a health minister’s prejudices.
Immigration offices around the country have been packed with expats and tourists desperate to extend their visas or meet the 90 day report requirement to remain ‘legal’.
Popular expat blogger Richard Barrow shared the frustration of many foreigners who were being forced to herd together at a time when Covid-19 was spreading at a rate of more than 100 cases a day. Lines extended down the streets as people queued up at immigration offices around the country, putting themselves and immigration officials at risk because of the slightly-panicked situation and people standing around for hours in close quarters.
“Will this madness ever end? We are in the middle of a global pandemic and the Immigration Bureau are still insisting for stranded tourists and expats to jump through hoops to extend their stay.”
The exasperated rant from Richard in an April 1 post, citing Trat Immigration’s list that required expats to “take the house owner with you for interrogation”.
On the same day, PM Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed action after hearing that hundreds were queuing in long lines outside immigration offices from 5am. The government announced it would approve automatic extensions for tourists until June in order to lower the health risk for both immigration staff and foreigners, though holders of other visas will still have to brave crowds to get extensions.
But nothing clear happened, or was announced at that stage, and expats and tourists are still trying to wade their way through the conflicting reports and the nuances of local offices.
More worrying is local anger brewing amongst Thais, some of who remain convinced, partly fuelled by the comments from the Thai Health Minister, that Thailand’s Covid-19 problem is a ‘farang’ import. And that the dirty farangs are the reason that Thai people are currently holed up in their homes and losing their jobs.
Last night a post was made on a popular Phuket Facebook page calling on upset Thai locals to grab some stones and make a slingshot to fire at foreigners who may have been flouting the local curfews. The same site was posting photos of ‘white’ foreigners around the island, most not wearing masks. They were becoming the target to vent three anger.
“#Get out from my country if you can not stay at home shit tourist.”
There were 5.7K of likes and 540 comments (as of lunchtime today), and hundreds of supportive comments from disgruntled locals saying they were ready to ‘take up arms’ and take on the dirty foreign tourists flaunt. In amongst some of the more violent comments there were a few voices of reason, not many. The Thaiger has contacted the author for comment. No response has been provided at this stage.
Trying to navigate their way through the maze of conflicting travel advice, new rules, visa changes and, well, just their own safety at this time, has been a really difficult time for foreigners, particularly the ones stranded here and perhaps not as nuanced about living with the locals and Thai culture.
Also foreigners are now having to confront more checkpoints and inspections, along with everyone else at the moment. The language barrier, added to the urgency of the situation, adds additional stress. On this note, we’d strongly advise foreigners heading outdoors to carry their passports and any other documents at the moment.
Still, it’s a difficult time for everyone right now.
Stay safe and stay at home.
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