BANGKOK, Thailand — As Thailand‘s medical system struggles beneath a surge of coronavirus cases, ordinary people are helping to plug the gaps, risking their own health to bring care and supplies to often terrified, exhausted patients who’ve fallen through the cracks.In the Samai area of Bangkok, Ekapob Laungprasert’s team heads out for another weekend on the front lines of a crisis.His volunteer group, Samai Will Survive, has been working around the clock, responding to about a hundred SOS calls daily from desperate COVID-19 patients unable to get the help they need.“We realize how hard working and how tired doctors and nurses are,” says the 38-year-old businessman. “What we are trying to do today is to help relieve some of the burden. Before, all cases must go to the hospital, so today there are no hospital beds. So we volunteer to help out.”It’s not long before they’re in action: Malee, a COVID-19 positive woman whose breathing has suddenly worsened. The group, wearing personal protective equipment, delivers oxygen and much-needed reassurance to Malee and her husband, an army officer who also has the virus.“I lost hope even with the army. I called doctors at field hospitals. All they told me to do was to send information, just send information,” Worawit Srisang said. “I got the same answers everywhere. At least these guys visit us in person. What the patient needs is a chance to see a doctor, not just send information.”Thailand’s predicament is stark. Around 15,000 new cases are confirmed each day and still more people are getting infected. In Bangkok alone, 20,000 people are waiting for a hospital bed.So homespun heroes like Ekapob and his group — buying equipment and supplies with public donations — are an essential safety net, gaining crucial time for both patients and a health care system under severe strain.There’s another call: an elderly woman with COVID-19 symptoms. But she’s not fit to wait in line for hours at an overwhelmed test center, so for the moment she’s stuck where she is.“Grandma can’t get tested, so she lies sick in bed. If we want to send her to the hospital, they will ask for her test result. So we are back in a circle, because we would ask them to do the test,” Ekapob says, looking in through the window.It’s very likely she has COVID-19. All her family members have already tested positive.After a check, his team members decide she’s not in imminent danger. They hook her up with oxygen, then it’s back into the night and on to the next case.There’s a raging debate in Thailand now over the national vaccination roll-out. Many Thais are angry over the slow pace and a perceived lack of accountability for the fact that only around 5% of the population currently is fully protected.The volunteers see the consequences almost every night.They’re called to 52-year old Nittaya Kongnuch, who like so many is struggling to breathe normally.As they try to make her more comfortable, her sister tells an increasingly familiar story. Their mother died last week from the virus, as their urgent calls for help to brimming hospitals went unheeded.“My mother showed bad symptoms from the beginning. I called and called to tell them my mom couldn’t handle this anymore, but nobody came. The nurses kept saying there were no beds,” said Piyawan Kodduang, fighting back tears.Most fatalities occur in private. But not all. Last week, a body lay for hours in a Bangkok street, incurring the wrath of an embarrassed prime minister.On Saturday night, Ekapob and his team see exactly how that can happen, as they’re called to a homeless woman who’s showing signs of infection.As wary residents watch from a distance, the team moves in to carry out a rapid test.Within a few minutes they have the result: positive.After making some phone calls, Ekapob finds her a place in a facility where she can be observed while awaiting a bed in a field hospital.At least she has a fighting chance. Without the volunteers, it’s likely she wouldn’t have any.Thailand has had 497,302 cases of COVID-19 and 4,059 deaths since the pandemic began.
A government official says production of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at a factory in Thailand has fallen short of its target, likely delaying the country’s plan to acquire a total of 61 million doses until next MayBy TASSANEE VEJPONGSA Associated PressJuly 15, 2021, 12:21 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBANGKOK — Production of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at a factory in Thailand has fallen short of its target, likely delaying the country’s plan to acquire a total of 61 million doses until next May, a government official said Thursday.The projected supply shortfall will complicate plans to inoculate at least 70% of the country’s 69 million people this year as Thailand battles record-high daily increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Cases have risen with the spread of the more contagious delta variant of the virus.Deputy Health Minister Sathit Pitutacha said in an interview with MCOT Television that AstraZeneca had asked for the extension until next May to complete delivery, and that while the timeframe is flexible, the government will still negotiate for as much monthly supply as possible.He said that according to AstraZeneca, the current production capacity of the factory operated by Siam Bioscience, a company owned by Thailand’s king, is 15 million doses per month, and that AstraZeneca has agreed to provide 40% of that to Thailand. Sathit said production could increase in the future.The government had previously announced that local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine would supply Thailand with 6 million doses in June, 10 million doses each month from July to November, and 5 million doses in December for a total of 61 million doses this year.Siam Bioscience was awarded a license by AstraZeneca last year to be a regional production hub supplying eight other countries despite having no experience in manufacturing vaccines.The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been widely criticized for failing to secure timely and adequate vaccine supplies, and has been scrambling to obtain vaccines in addition to Sinovac and Sinopharm from China and the locally produced AstraZeneca. The government says it now has agreements to also buy from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.Thai health authorities said Wednesday they will seek to impose limits on exports of the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine because the country doesn’t have enough for its own needs. They did not specify what the limits might be.Dr. Nakorn Premsri, director of the National Vaccine Institute, said its vaccine committee agreed in principle to issue an order temporarily limiting exports, but did not give any details. The order would be issued by designating it a matter of national security.India, the world’s biggest vaccine producer, banned vaccine exports earlier this year when it was hit by a devastating coronavirus outbreak.Thailand has administered 13.53 million doses of vaccine to 10.16 million people, or 14.74% of the country’s population. About 3.37 million people, or 4.89% of the population, are fully vaccinated.The slow pace of vaccinations, hindered by supply problems, threatens the government’s plan to kickstart a recovery of Thailand’s key tourist industry by allowing the entry of vaccinated travelers without requiring them to quarantine on arrival starting in mid-October.
Thai customs officials say they have made their biggest seizure of heroin this year, about 315 kilograms worth up to $29 millionBy TASSANEE VEJPONGSA Associated PressJuly 6, 2021, 5:15 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBANGKOK — Customs officials in Thailand made their biggest seizure of heroin this year, about 315 kilograms (700 pounds) worth up to 944 million baht ($29 million), bringing the total confiscated so far this year to 2 tons, officials said Tuesday.They did not say where the drugs originated, but the seizure comes amid concerns that production may surge in neighboring Myanmar, the region’s main supplier of illicit drugs, because of severe instability following the military’s ouster of an elected government in February.Customs Department Director-General Patchara Anuntasilpa said 134 shrink-wrapped packets of heroin, each weighing about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), had been concealed in a shipment of acrylic paint headed for Australia.He said the drugs were discovered on Monday because the packets of heroin were placed in square plastic containers which stood out on X-rays of the paint buckets.The arrest of a suspect led to the identification of the person who hired him, who fled to Laos, said Wichai Chaimongkol, secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board.The Golden Triangle area, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, was a major production area for opium and hosted many of the labs that converted it to heroin.Thailand has almost completely eliminated opium farming and heroin production, which continues in Myanmar, whose border areas have always been poorly policed. Heroin and other drugs are often smuggled through Laos to Thailand, where much of it is transshipped to overseas destinations such as Australia.Over the past two decades, easily manufactured methamphetamines have supplanted opium and heroin to become the dominant illegal drug in the region for both domestic consumption and export.“While demand for opiates continues to decrease as the region’s synthetic drug market expands and diversifies, organized crime groups that traffic heroin are still generating substantial profits, with heroin manufacturing and trafficking making up the vast majority of this value,” the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in its annual Myanmar Opium Survey, published in January.The Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank noted in a report in March that statistics show that “the Australian drug trade is large and growing.”“Despite the best efforts of law enforcement agencies, methamphetamine and heroin use has been increasing by up to 17% year on year. Falling prices in Southeast Asia are likely to keep pushing that number up, while drug prices and purity in Australia remain relatively stable,” the report said.The U.N.’s drug agency has warned that the political turmoil in Myanmar could lead to an expansion of the illegal drug trade.It said three factors could trigger an upsurge: a general breakdown of good governance, a collapse of markets for normal crops, and a desire by ethnic rebel militias, some of which have long ties to the drug trade, to raise revenue to support their activities during the political uncertainty.———This article has been corrected to note that the drug seizure was announced Tuesday, not Thursday.