Bangkok, Thailand – When the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in April last year, * Hnin Hnin was able to keep her school for migrant children open, spending her mornings as she used to, crafting word games in a large blackboard as his five-year-olds watched.
Infections and deaths at the time were still in the single digits, and Hnin Hnin, a teacher from Myanmar, was cautiously optimistic that the pandemic would be over soon. His school, which runs with the help of a local charity, received generous donations of food, hygiene kits and masks.
But a year later, an outbreak fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant has led to an increase in infections in factories in the area, overwhelming hospitals and leading to a prolonged blockade of provinces on the Thai-Myanmar border and forcing the closure of the Hnin Hnin school.
“A lot of people started dying,” he told Al Jazeera. “Many of my friends died. It spread very quickly and now many areas of Mae Sot are infected. “
The virus struck particularly close to home when Hnin Hnin’s friend and her fellow teacher fell ill from COVID-19 in July. Her friend had tried to go to the hospital when her condition deteriorated, but was rejected; They said they didn’t have a bed for her. When he tried to ask for help to get home, no one came.
“He received no help from the Thai government,” Hnin Hnin said, adding that paramedics only respond to calls from Thai citizens. Hnin’s friend Hnin finally died at his home in late July.
“She was just one of my many friends who got sick.”
‘The real solution’
The latest wave has rocked Thailand, raising COVID-19 cases to nearly 1.3 million with more than 13,000 deaths recorded. Thailand reports at least 15,000 cases a day with an average of around 175 deaths a day, in contrast to last year’s figures when daily cases were few and deaths rare.
As COVID-19 rises, organizations working on the border say the thousands of migrants and more than 90,000 refugees face a variety of challenges, including lack of access to coronavirus-related health care. And as factories and workplaces close once again, their livelihoods are also in jeopardy, creating a ripple effect on the mental health of many migrants, experts say.
Hnin Hnin now faces the possibility of closing his school for many months.
“With the closure, people started to lose their jobs and money,” Hin Hin told Al Jazeera. “At first we were dependent on donated money, but it is running out.”
Hnin Hnin used to earn roughly 3,000 Thai baht ($ 100) per month. But now, he can barely afford to eat enough. She feels a responsibility towards her students, she worries about their safety, hoping they don’t get into trouble while they are not in class.
“I really hope that immigrant schools can open soon,” he said. “Because many children are now forced to work or end up on the street.”
Mae Sot authorities imposed COVID-19 restrictions on the area after cases spiked at several factories in late June. That month, more than half of the workers at three factories, numbering 452 people, were confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper. Following the factory outbreak, the governor of the region ordered the closure of all three factories.
Then in July, local authorities implemented a night curfew for the surrounding Tak province, prohibiting people from leaving their homes after 8 p.m. The Post also reported that migrant workers were not allowed to move between districts unless they had permits from the Mae Sot district chief.
In addition to increased restrictions, the Hnin Hnin community has had very little access to vaccines, leaving them exposed to the virus. As the Thais around her began to get vaccinated, she wondered why her entire community was being left out.
Al Jazeera made multiple requests to government spokespersons about the lack of access to vaccines for migrants at the border. None of the officials responded.
“The confinements control COVID-19, but the migrants do not receive any financial help to face those moments when they lose their income. Vaccines are the real solution, ”said Braham Press, director of the MAP Foundation, an NGO that seeks to empower Myanmar immigrant communities living and working in Thailand. “However, for migrants, receiving any vaccine is questionable. A handful of migrants have had employers provide them with vaccinations, but most have had to pay service fees. “
Without adequate protection and income, Brahm says the current situation is affecting the mental health of migrants. He adds that many migrant workers have gone into debt trying to survive the economic consequences of previous waves.
‘Worried about my family’
Thailand is a country of origin, destination and transit for migrant populations in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom shares four land borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, and today, an estimated four to five million migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and other regional nations are working in Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration. . Refugees and displaced people also continually move across the Myanmar border in search of safety. The February 1 coup in Myanmar brought a new wave of people fleeing the country.
As COVID-19 cases increase, the nine camps along the border are also facing lockdowns. This comes with movement restrictions that have affected the flow of resources like food and medicine.
* Lily, a 23-year-old refugee now working in Mae Sot, says she is concerned for her family who remain in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp where she grew up.
“I am very worried about my family. I want them to have access to vaccines because they are old and my mother suffers from a chronic disease, ”Lilly said. “She is not in good health. My parents can’t go to work and sometimes they don’t have money to buy food. I send money whenever I can. “
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says migrants and refugees must be fully included in the government’s COVID-19 response, including treatments for the disease and its vaccine distribution plan.
“COVID-19 affects everyone and POCs (persons of concern) in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as local populations,” said Morgane Roussel Hemery, UNHCR Associate External Relations Officer. “POCs can be particularly vulnerable as a result of the challenges they may face in meeting their basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19, and obtaining hygiene items or medical support.”
In June, Thai authorities closed and sealed more than 600 construction camps in Bangkok, where more than 80,000 migrant workers lived. They were not allowed to leave their own homes and were effectively imprisoned. Government officials cited security concerns after clusters of COVID-19 were found in migrant communities.
“Most migrants are paid a daily wage and if they don’t work they are not paid. For some who are locked in the factory compound, they can be supported with some food, ”said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, a group that provides food, shelter and other forms of support to refugees from Myanmar. “For other people who live outside the complex it is more difficult and if they have dependents to take care of, the burden increases.”
The decision to segregate large groups of migrants has led to widespread mistrust of the authorities, with many migrant workers saying they feel they are continually mistreated by the Thai state.
In Mae Sot, Hnin Hnin worries about her students’ lack of access to education and fears that more people may die without vaccines and without access to health care.
“The problem is that if you are Thai, you can get the vaccines for free,” he said.
“For migrants, we cannot get it even if we pay money. I think some people will die if they don’t have access to medical care. “
Additional reporting by Linn Let Arkar.
All the names of the migrants have been changed to protect their identity for privacy and security reasons.