Thais give up on their government and go abroad for vaccines – if they can

Jakkrit “Tom” Yompayorm completes his second dose in May of the Pfizer-made COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. state of Virginia.
Jakkrit “Tom” Yompayorm completes his second dose in May of the Pfizer-made COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. state of Virginia.

They’ve cropped up in feeds. From subtle photos of plasters on bare shoulders to full social media flexes that include airline tickets, shopping hauls and vaccination cards showing off top-tier brands like Pfizer.

While Thailand’s big vaccination talk remains out of sync with reality, an untold number of vaccine-seeking travelers have gone to great lengths – and expense – to obtain health peace of mind overseas, particularly in the United States. And while the .01% spending massive sums for a jab may seem like yet another source of grotesque class contempt – like the existential question of Ferrari paint color – it’s just as much an indictment of Thailand’s wealthiest and powerful-est failure to provide for everyone.

“If the vaccine cannot come to me, I’ll go and get it then,” Jakkrit Yompayorm, 34, said in a telephone interview from his first of 14 days of quarantine confinement upon returning from the United States.

While some have been silent and others brag about their vaccine tourism, television host and internet personality Jakkrit, best known as Kru Tom Kam Thai (Teacher Tom Teaching Thai), is on the loud-and-proud end of the spectrum. In recent weeks, he has posted photos of his injection inside an American Walmart store.

“All done! Welcome back to your normal life … Thank you American government,” he tweeted May 28 after completing both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Some are motivated by serious health issues that make them at serious risk. Others are frustrated by the government’s (mis)handling of vaccine procurement. While some may see it as yet another status symbol to brag about, the people interviewed for this story had sincere motivations.

Jakkrit said he was concerned about the vaccines which have reached Thailand – mostly Chinese-made Sinovac (also known as CoronaVac), which public opinion polls show Thais place little faith in; or AstraZeneca, which is being manufactured by a royally owned Thai firm with zero experience in vaccine production. 

Wanting something more credible, Jakkrit, whose U.S. visa was up to date, landed in Washington D.C. and then commuted to nearby Virginia to stay with a friend. He booked an appointment via big box retailer Walmart for a dose of Pfizer, which has an average efficacy of 95%. 

Vaccine hesitancy in Thailand has been on the rise due to reports – true or not – of side effects, while the slow rollout and delayed procurement has only exacerbated people’s distrust in the government’s management.

“People are forced to find their own solutions,” Jakkrit said.

Most of those traveling overseas are going to the United States, where vaccines are free and available to anyone despite citizenship.

On the date of his inoculation, Jakkrit said he only gave his name, answered a few questions about his symptoms and rolled up his sleeve. Everything happened in a few minutes.

“Everything was so smooth. No hiccups,” Jakkrit said, adding that many people have since asked him for advice.

That’s a stark contrast to Thailand’s over-the-top bureaucratization of the process in which people must apply, register, show proper identification and obtain an appointment through a process that favors the digitally woke. A process which has relegated noncitizens to the back of the line, despite adamant assurances otherwise.

As one of those noncitizens, it’s worth noting that the American half of this reporting duo is finishing this story today hours after landing in Los Angeles on an unplanned trip home due to a family emergency. While vaccine tourism wasn’t my reason to travel, I walked across the street from my mother’s hospital in Pasadena, Calif., to a supermarket where a sign advertised free inoculations. 

Much Lagged of Jet Managing Editor Todd Ruiz at the start of his 3-minute wait this morning for an armful of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine in Los Angeles, California.
Much Lagged of Jet Managing Editor Todd Ruiz at the start of his 3-minute wait this morning for an armful of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine in Los Angeles, California.

“Which vaccine do you want?” the woman wearing a rainbow-striped face mask for Pride Month asked. “The COVID-19 vaccine?” I offered gamely, wondering if she was expecting rabies or rubella.

She stared for a good five seconds. “What type?”

After months awaiting hope from any hospital in Thailand, I was a bit overwhelmed. “I want that Johnson,” I said.

Five minutes later, just over a week after writing about that “Totally left out” feeling, it was done. (Next desperate hope, my Phuket Sandbox return home.)

At least four Thai travel agencies are currently arranging overseas tours for those who want to get vaccines abroad. The prices range from THB67,000 (US$2,150) to THB245,000 (US$7,850) on tours that include sightseeing to Beverly Hills, the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

Jakkrit said he paid only in the low-20,000s for the round-trip while he had to pay more than that, THB30,000-plus, for two weeks of state quarantine, despite being Pfizer-vaccinated.

Suwincha “Chacha” Singsuwan paid more for the trip. A lot more. For that reason, she thinks the United States has a good economic incentive to give free vaccinations to anyone, whoever they are, citizens or not. 

Her “free” vaccine cost her roughly THB68,000 to start, and that was just for air travel and her state quarantine on return. Not to mention all the money she spent in between during three weeks in Arkansas and New York.

Suwincha “Chacha” Singsuwan in the United States.

“America should give free vaccines, because America is getting a lot of money!” she said Thursday from a state quarantine hotel, just over a week after returning.

She didn’t have faith in Thailand vaccinating her any time soon (“It’s a joke!”), and she is young and healthy and has no pressing medical needs of her own. 

But Chacha, who rose through the ranks of Bangkok bartending at places like Rabbit Hole and now manages five properties plus three recently opened tea shops, saw it as her responsibility to the 60-plus staff she comes in daily contact with.

“I have to protect them,” she said. 

She didn’t know when her venues would be allowed to reopen, but she had a fateful conversation with her sister in the U.S. state of Arkansas.

“So my sister said, OK, because all the bars are closed, why don’t you take a vacation?”

Chacha, who got out of quarantine Wednesday, said she had to shop around a bit – Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine had just returned to the market – but ultimately had no problem despite being a noncitizen with no health insurance.

Sucha Nuntaworanuch, 33, watched from afar as her family in the United States – parents and two siblings – got vaccinated. 

“No matter how much money I had, I couldn’t do anything to get the vaccine here in Thailand,” Sucha said. “The only choice I could do was fly abroad.”

She flew to San Francisco where they live, went to a Costco big box retailer, and chose the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so she could get back to work in Thailand quickly.

Everything was done in less than half an hour, including the 15-minute observation. 

Sucha Nuntaworanuch gets a Johnson & Johnson jab at a Costco in San Francisco. 

That’s when she said it really hit her. She was fully vaccinated. That feeling of relief came paired with anger.

“Suddenly, I was frustrated [with the Thai government]. The United States got plenty of vaccines, but why didn’t Thailand import them?” Sucha said. “I felt a lot of empathy for the Thai people who were unable to register for vaccines.”

Thailand has maintained a firm, top-down approach and prevented private entities from buying their own vaccines.

Sucha notes that she was lucky to have a valid U.S. visa. She said that her sister-in-law has applied for one but has to wait until late June for her embassy interview.

Like Jakkrit, Chacha and others who have traveled to get the ultimate sense of health security, Sucha still had to quarantine 14 days upon arriving home. She said that cost, around THB32,000, actually cost her more than traveling round trip to San Francisco. 

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