COVID-19, Health Borders, and the Purity of the Thai Nation

Article

Soon after the 2020 New Year celebration, a newly identified Corona virus in China started its global spread around the world, leading to the severest and deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Today, the situation on COVID-19 infections seems not to get better as there are second waves in many European countries, while India has around 6.6 million infection cases.

Myanmar
Teaser Image Caption
Temperature Check at Myanmar/Thai Border

Even though Thailand was the first country outside of China to record COVID-19 infections, the country has been successful in controlling the disease. Infections reached a peak of about 100-150 per day in March 2020, but dwindled to zero cases in May and has remained there since, with totals of around 3,500 infections and 59 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The EU consequently announced Thailand as no longer a dangerous zone. This makes one wonder how the Thai state is able to control/manage the pandemic.

This article examines the ad-hoc policy and regulation applied by the Thai government in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Based on document and fieldwork research, it reveals that in order to control spreading of the virus (both from outside and inside the country), the Thai government erected a ‘health border’ to control mobility of the people, as well as set up a governing body, the Center for Resolution for Emergency Resolution COVID-19 under the emergency decree. What is needed to pass this ‘health border’ is a Fit-to-Fly certificate, TM.08 form, health certificate indicating COVID-19 negative test, 14 days state-quarantine for people who return from abroad, while domestic regulation for the Thai people inside the country has involved lockdown and prohibition of interprovincial mobility, which also requires a health certificate and official permission to travel between provinces.  

Paradoxically, at the beginning of the crisis, almost all governments around the world recalled their citizens to return to their motherland, but the Thai government actually blocked their citizens to return home, which led many Thai overseas students to be stuck in transitory countries for several days. It was only later that the Thai government announced this ‘health border’, also requiring Thai citizens to complete a health check before returning (the one who is not fit cannot fly).

Instead of seeing and treating the Thai people as citizens that the state needs to protect, the Thai government categorizes people into two boxes: the infectious and the pure body. I draw my analysis upon a concept of Douglas on Purity and Danger (Douglas, 1966). The establishment of a health border and regulation does not only control the spreading of the virus, it suggests that the ultimate concern of the Thai government is reaching and maintaining zero cases and the purity of its nation. Moreover, the Thai overseas migrants returning from abroad and migrant workers are seen as ‘contaminated  bodies’, considered to be dangerous, and become a subject of control and purification. They have to be in a state or an alternative state quarantine without leaving the hotel room for 14 days before they are fully welcomed back home. This is like a rite de passage where a body has to pass through a purification process in order to be accepted back into the Thai society, similar to the idea of putting a criminal in prison in the hope that prison can convert bad people to be good. During this liminal period, the body is not treated fully as a citizen, but similar to a prisoner.

Health Border
Health Borders: Temperature check in Mae Sot Border

Health borders

The Thai government’s response to COVID-19 shares similarities with other countries around the world. State, border and health expertise play a strong role during this crisis involving the death and lives of the people, which scholars have analyzed as ‘state of exception’ (Agamben, 2005). During the COVID-19 emergency crisis, especially, there was nothing more important than ‘health’ or ‘bio-security’, which leads to withdrawal of rights and privacy of the citizen (Agamben, 2020). In such a state of exception, the sovereign (the state) has the power to decide which persons' lives are worth saving and which ones are not. However, what COVID-19 policies effectively did to Thai overseas migrants and migrants from neighboring countries is to blur the boundary of ‘citizen’ and ‘other’. Under the name of health and bio-security, everybody is treated as potentially dangerous, simply a body subject to the state of exception where everyone, citizen or non-citizen, needs to pass through a newly erected health border (in addition to the geographical and political border) in order to screen the health of the body before entering into the Kingdom.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel required a valid passport and visa to cross the national border. Some countries ask you to fill in the form of declaration that you do not bring any prohibited goods or food to their lands, but during the pandemic, the Thai state requires you to declare your healthiness through fit-to fly, COVID-19 test 72 hour in advance, a TM 08 form, and then a mandatory quarantine. It is like crossing double borders, where the health border has even more stringent requirements than the political one.

Unlike common situations in the Southeast Asia region where (land) borders are often porous and permeable (van Schendel and de Maaker, 2014), COVID-19 caused the Thai government to shut all of the immigration/emigration points, and to seal the entire national border, which is around 5,656 km long. This phenomenon has never happened before. The sealed border was a necessary requirement to declare the state of emergency for health reasons, with the goal of reaching zero cases of infections.

The health border for the Thai citizen specifically comprised:

  • Fit to Fly/Fit to Travel  certificate, issued by a doctor
  • Health certificate indicating COVID-19 negative test
  • TM.08 form, application for re-entry permit to return into the Thai Kingdom
  • Declaration form for 14 days state quarantine

In order to return to Thailand, the Thai overseas returnees need to contact the Thai embassies at the countries where they stay. They need to follow all the procedures and complete all documents. Everything needed to be organized through the Thai embassies locally including arranging for your (repatriation) flight; it is not possible to book your own flight. Upon return, you will be transported to the allocated hotel that you will stay for another 14 days. However, the Thai overseas migrants are not homogenous. They are students, civil servants, tourists, foreign partners, (undocumented) migrant workers. Not all of them are able to get these documents due to difficult procedures, lacking a legal document, or having other difficulties.

Thai migrant workers from Malaysia express that it was difficult to get the Fit-to-Travel certification (they travel by land), especially for those who cannot speak Malay and English. Some of them indicate that in order to get all these documents, they need to travel from their workplaces, which are close to the Thai border, to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It costs them a lot of money and time. Many of them decide to illegally cross the border back to Thailand. Moreover, the border has been sealed and the Thai government only allows for 100 returnees per day. Some of them have to wait for more than a week to go back to Thailand.  In the health border, citizenship almost carries no weight, it is all about bio-security and zero cases infection. Fassin emphasizes that it is “the tenets of bio-power to make live becomes a matter of choice over who shall live and what sort of life and how long”. Additionaly, life under bio-power is inequality (Fassin, 2009:53). The case of Thai migrant workers from Malaysia clearly show that under this health border, their return is deferred by the Thai state. Their lives might not be important while their bodies are subject of control with demanding to sacrifice for maintain and controlling the virus.

Purity of the Thai (national) body

During the first (and still only) wave of COVID-19, the Thai government’s ultimate goal was to do anything to get to ‘zero cases’. The spokesperson of the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation - COVID-19 announced early May that Thailand had zero new cases of COVID-19 infection.

Taweesin
Taweesin Visanuyothin, giving brief summaries of COVID-19 situation at Center of COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), Government House of Thailand on April 2, 2020

Since May 3, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported daily had been in single figures, except for 18 found among quarantined migrants in Songkhla province on May 4”, said Dr. Taweesilp Visanuyothin[1].

The quote clearly shows that Thailand is for the first time free from COVID-19[2] and the body of the Thai nation was cleansed, or purified. The exception in the quote was telling: the migrants who returned from Malaysia and stayed in state quarantine were not considered part of the Thai 'national body', nor did they count as Thai since they were migrants, whose bodies are suspect, having a potential to be infectious. This will contaminate the purity of the Thai national body.

Dr. Taweesilp spoke further:

 "We can relax, but cannot be reckless... Please keep to the new-normal practices. Finally, we may be among the first countries able to end the hardship brought by this disease".

This quote reveals that what the Thai state wants is to claim the credit and recognition from the international community that Thailand is able to deal with this disease and being among the first COVID-19-free countries. However, in order to keep the country free from COVID-19 (which is actually almost impossible to do so) it requires many sacrifices. Apart from the sacrifice of hard-working medical staff, the imposition of lock down measurements obliges people to stay at home. This leads to jobs losses in sectors that depend on people going out, people not able to feed their families, and despair because savings are low and there are debts to pay. The Mental Health Department reports that there are 2551 Thai people committed suicide in early this year. The rate increased by 22 percent compared to last year. The research study from Thai scholar team discloses that among 38 cases that they interviewed attempted to commit suicide were due to lock down, business closure, job losses, and furloughs. Among those 38 cases, there are 28 resulted in death[3].     

The idea of ‘purity body’ of the nation also explicitly resulted in xenophobia and racism for the case of Thai migrants returning from South Korea. The Thai migrant workers, informally called ‘Phee Noi ’ or little ghost since they illegally and discretely stay and work in South Korea, were the first group of Thai migrants who returned. It raised a hot debate in Thai society when social media showed that a female migrant did not do the self-quarantine when she arrived in her hometown in Chiangrai, visiting a restaurant and went shopping. From her case, the Thai society started to pinpoint and blame the return migrants as lacking responsibility to Thai society (as they were also irresponsible for their illegal stay in South Korea which affected other Thai tourists) and that they would be a super spreader, all in spite of the fact that they were treated quite badly by the Thai government. It later turned out that the big spreader of the virus in Thailand is not from them, but the group of upper middle class and Thai celebrities visited the boxing stadium.  

Moreover, the idea of purity penetrates into the provincial level and into individuals' minds. Trang is one of a few provinces that is COVID-19 free according to the report from the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation. My friend, a Thai overseas student who returned from the United Kingdom just before the Thai government announced the closing of the border had done his self-quarantine for 14 days in his house in Trang province. During the waiting time, he told me that he worried that he might get an infection and spread disease to his parents, but what made him more anxious is that he would then be the first infection case in Trang province. His name would be announced and put a shame on him. One does not want to be the dangerous body to bring impurity to the land. It similarly reflects what the Thai government thinks of when dealing with COVID-19 being about ‘purity of the Thai national body’.

Health Border2
Temperature Check at Mae Sot Border (Thai side)

Migrants, returnees, body politics and liminality

During the unstable time of COVID-19, both the bodies of Thai overseas and other migrants were considered to be dangerous. Regardless of their nationality, whether they are Thai or non-Thai, they must be in quarantine before getting back to live in society. However, migrant workers from neighboring countries are already seen as ‘other’ and not being included in the Thai society. Although they are physically in Thailand, they are generally excluded with no access to full rights as a Thai citizen. COVID-19 affects the body of Thai and other migrants in different and similar ways as  I show in the following:

i. Suspect body and rite de passage

As I illustrated above Thai overseas migrants were required to submit so many documents before returning to Thailand. After arrival, everybody needs to be in a state quarantine for 14 days. Their body is considered to be dangerous as they might carry the virus, therefore they need to be in an isolated place. This is like a rite de passage where they are in liminal stage and they can only be accepted back into society after their bodies are confirmed to be free from the virus. Moreover, the regulation blurs a boundary between being citizen and being migrant (other) by reducing it to be a suspect body. In other words, COVID-19 has temporarily removed rights of the citizen to become bare life (Agamben, 2005). By labelling all bodies coming from abroad as dangerous bodies, the bare body, irrespective of being a Thai citizen or a migrant, becomes a threat to national health security of the whole society. It is this way how the state of exception is operated.

However, the body of Burmese migrant workers, which is considered dangerous, at the same time contains some power. According to Douglas (1966), the body that is in a liminal stage, such as an unborn child in a woman's womb, is powerful since a child which does not yet become a human is a liminal subject whereby the child may inflict the death of the bearer. In the case of the migrant body, they might or might not carry the virus, so their status is unclear. Therefore, their body is dangerous to Thailand in general as they can spread the virus to the Thai citizen. In Singapore, migrant workers community were forgotten by the government and this led to a wide spread of the virus. This worries the Thai government since they want to keep Thailand out of a second wave. So, while migrant workers were spotted on and became subject of control, they also received the same medical treatment as the Thai people for a short time, because of the danger (and thereby power) that they wielded. At the same time, Thai overseas migrants experienced the feeling of their citizenship being partially removed when they crossed the health border. COVID-19 and the Thai government made them go through a short-time liminality period, for a moment sharing the same experience as migrant workers from neighboring countries. 

ii. Double liminality  

In mid-March, the Thai government announced a lock-down and sealing off of the border. It was the same time that the number of infection cases skyrocketed. For many migrant workers from Burma, it also happened to be their time to renew/extend their working permit, and this process cannot be done in Bangkok. Each of them needs to return to Myanmar. So they usually combine this renewal working permit with Songkran holidays, so they can spend some time at their hometown. However, due to the lockdown, many of them lost their jobs. Even the groups who were not (yet) unemployed had a real fear of an uncertain future and that one day soon they might be laid off as well. This led them to doubt whether they should return home to Myanmar, wait for the situation to improve and renew their visa, or that they should continue to stay in Thailand.

Of the group which decided to return, many got stuck at the Thailand-Myanmar border, because the borders were closed. It took several days before the Thai and Burmese government had an agreement to temporarily open the border for these groups of migrant workers to return. At that time, the Burmese government discouraged their own citizens to return home as well. The groups of returnees needed to self-quarantine for 16 days, as mandated by the Burmese government. A while later, some returnees wanted to return to the Thai side when they heard from their networks that the Thai factories were re-opened after a 3-month close. But the border was still closed for humans to cross, only open for commodity trading. Many of them decided to return by illegally crossing the border, upon which some were taken by the Thai border police and sent back to the Myanmar side.

There was also a time when the local government was flexible to open the border for migrants to cross back, however, they were required to have all obligatory documents as I mentioned above to pass the health border. At the border on the Thai side, the office checked migrants’ body temperature. There was a case that the Shan migrant passed the immigration control from Myanmar side then cross to Thai side, but his body’s temperature exceed 37.5 degrees Celsius. The Thai office sent him back, but the Burmese government did not want to take him back either.  Another case was reported by the local activist in Mae Sot about Muslim female migrants returned during the early time of the closed border. She was able to go back to Myanmar, but the Burmese state put them in a quarantine for 16 days at the border. When she arrived at her house, villagers were unhappy and afraid that she may spread the virus to them and their family members. She was required to stay inside her house for an additional 14 days. Later on, when she came back to Thai side, the migrant community in Mae Sot also required her to quarantine for 14 days and she relied on the food from her sister who visit her two times a day. This clearly show that during COVID-19 outbreak and relaxing phase, migrant workers who are already in a liminal position fall into another liminality with uncertainty when it will it end. Their lives are like being in double/layered liminality, one is from their status in the Thai society, and other is affected by COVID-19 which creates another layer of liminality to them.

iii. More difficulties

There is another group of migrant workers who decided not to return since they did not lose their job or their employer did not allow them to return.  This group may not face a double/layered of liminality, but they have to cope with difficulties on everyday life level while staying during this time.

Tee Tee works as a housekeeper in a suburb of Bangkok. She said that although COVID-19 did not make her lose her job, during lock-down she had to work longer hours and harder than before since her employer’s family members stayed at home. Apart from routine work, they demanded more services, so she had quite less time to relax. She said it was okay and better than losing her job. Similar to the case of Htoo Moo that works as a shop assistant in a center of Bangkok, she could not return to Myanmar since the employer did not want to take risk as she might not be able to return to Thailand again. She shared with me that she missed her family, especially her 2-year old son who she brought back to Myanmar last year and asked her parents to take care of him. She looked forward to seeing and hugging him again during the Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Festival. But it was impossible because of COVID-19. For her, Thingyan is not only just holidays, but a valuable time being at home in her house, relaxing, meeting friends and relatives, participating in religion ceremony, as well as taking care of official business, such as renewing her working permit.  

Win, a Lahu-Burmese man, works in an orchid farm in Nakorn Pathom. He shared with me that before COVID-19, he and his colleagues had to work every day. But during the lockdown, the orders from abroad stopped. His employer stopped cultivating orchids and laid off half the number of workers. He himself was not unemployed since he had been working with this employer for almost 8 years. But, he did not get paid his salary. The employer allowed him to stay in a worker house. He stopped sending remittances home for more than three months. His wife called and asked him when he could send her some money, his children have to eat every day. He wanted to find a part-time job in order to get some income, but it was impossible during this time. This made him stressed and he felt despair.

Clocks
Tachileik, Myanmar / Mae Sai, Thailand: The time zone watches in the customs office ot the Myanmar-Thai Border. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Conclusion

As we can see, COVID-19 outbreak affects migrant bodies in different and similar ways as Thai citizens. For the Burmese migrant workers, their body is necessary for the Thai economy as a body of labor, but not for something else. In a sense, it is a body that is disposable: if they go back, another migrant can take his/her place. In this sense, they are the quintessential 'other' to the Thai state (and many of its citizens who employ these migrants).

While COVID-19 exacerbated this focus on 'the body' by establishing a state of exception and erecting a strict health border in addition to the regular (political/geographical) border, returning Thai citizens suddenly found themselves subjected to a similar objectification, because their bodies as potential carriers of the virus were subject to the same health regime, which required anyone, citizen or non-citizen, to undergo several checks and enter into a liminal phase before being accepted back into Thai society. I showed in this article that the ultimate goal for Thai society hereby was purification of society, cleansing it of all virus elements, even getting international recognition for its successful response, yet irrespective of its own citizens left stranded abroad, a tanking economy, people losing their jobs, and increasing suicides nationally. Even after months of zero new cases, polls show widespread support in the population to keep the state of emergency going and maintain zero cases at all costs, which shows that the discourse of the purity of the Thai nation runs deep and is widespread (not only in the government). Even though Thai health authorities seem well-equipped to deal with a few cases if regulations would relax, it is still unclear when the state of emergency will be lifted.

Footnotes


[1] Dr. Taweesilp Visanuyothin is the spokesperson of Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation-COVID-19. The quote is from Bangkok Post. (13th May 2020). No new Covid-cases for the first time retrieved from https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1917380/no-new-covid-cases-for-the-first-time (last access on 1 October 2020)

[2] In Thailand everyone diagnosed with COVID-19 gets transported to the hospital and is put in quarantine.

[3] อรรถจักร์ สัตยานุรักษ์ และคณะ (2020) โครงการวิจัย คนจนเมืองทmี่เปลี่ยนไปในสังคมเมืองที่กำลังเปลี่ยนแปลง สนับสนุนโดย สำนักงานคณะกรรมการส่งเสริมวิทยาศาสตร์ วิจัยและนวัตกรรม (สกสว.)

References

Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Agamben, G. (2020, March 14). Retrieved from the Book Haven: https://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2020/03/giorgio-agamben-on-coronavirus-t…

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Dange: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge Classics.

Fassin, D. (2009). Another Politics of Life is. Theory, Culture & Society, 44-60.

van Schendel, W., & De Maaker, E. (2014). Asian Borderlands: Introducing their Permeability, Strategic Uses and Meanings. Journal of Borderlands Studies, 29(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1080/08865655.2014.892689