‘Totally left out’: Thailand’s expats anxious as march toward immunity passes them by

Vaccinations are conducted at the check-in counters in late April at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: Suvarnabhumi Airport
Vaccinations are conducted at the check-in counters in late April at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: Suvarnabhumi Airport

Tony Rodriguez didn’t know what his members would think. To ally with the election-stealing, Trump-hating, tax-and-spend liberals supporting the socialist takeover of America? But there it was, an offer from U.S. Democrats living in Thailand to join hands with their Trump-obsessed, neofascist and insurrectionist Republican adversaries.

“To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how our members would feel about this, because there’s not many cases where Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas work together, and there are many people upset about the election and Biden’s presidency,” said Rodriguez, who revived the GOP’s presence in Thailand and now musters the party faithful across Asia.

The existential threat powerful enough to unite their warring political tribes? Access to a COVID-19 vaccine. Any of them.

With Thailand making it clear in deed, if not word, that noncitizens are at the back of the inoculation line, the foreign-born residents who call the kingdom home say they feel shut out of the pandemic endgame, their health needs neglected by their home and adopted governments. That’s fed an angry and resentful narrative on social media, as well as calls for help from vaccine- and resource-rich nations.

Paul Risley, chairman of Democrats Abroad, reached out to Rodriguez and the Republicans Overseas late last month to call on the U.S. State Department “to fulfill the pledge made by President Biden to make coronavirus vaccines available to all Americans.”

“This was an instance in which Democrats and Republicans living abroad are in agreement,” Risley said, adding a portion of the doses the United States plans to export could be earmarked for its citizens and their families.

An overwhelming 98.6% of respondents to a nonscientific survey Democrats Abroad conducted said they wanted the vaccine, 10% of whom identified as military veterans. Only 16 of 1,151 who responded said they weren’t interested.

Why can’t they just fly home for the jab? Risley noted that a significant portion of U.S. citizens living in Thailand, like those of other nationalities, are elderly retirees living on small, fixed incomes. He said the cost of flights, accommodations and quarantine upon return put such a trip out of reach for his own family.

The letter they issued May 6 noted the administration’s stated prime directive: “The U.S. Government has no higher priority than the protection of American citizens.” It was also signed by the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Women’s Club of Thailand.

While both Risley and Rodriguez say they’ve had positive discussions with embassy staff, there’s been no formal response to the letter nor change in policy three weeks later.

‘Until everybody’s safe?’

Vaccines in Thailand, as of February, would be free and equally available for all. Until they weren’t. And then they were, again, except they actually weren’t.

While it would be easy to attribute deceit or malice to the contradictory messaging, it’s as much likely that left and right hands are notoriously out of touch.

Sincere and ironclad commitments from the COVID-19 task force and foreign affairs reps about universal access have been resoundingly refuted by the health system rank and file, for whom there seems no question that citizens come first.

The official mantra – “Nobody’s safe until everybody’s safe” – has an unspoken caveat: The safety of some will have to wait.

Roughly 2 million people have received at least one vaccine dose so far. Indeed a few foreigners have obtained them through informal channels or less discriminating distribution centers which have sprung up.

Catherine Vanesse, a Belgian journalist living in Chiang Mai, said Wednesday that local officials have been knocking on doors, hers included, signing households up for vaccination regardless of citizenship status.

Still, Friday’s pronouncement that foreigners would finally be able to register on June 7, the day mass vaccination begins, was met with believe-it-when-we-see-it skepticism, particularly for its lack of details.

In a global crisis that has not brought out the best in international cooperation, Thailand’s nativist impulses aren’t unique. Though the selfish strains of America First, England for the English and other nationalist sentiments make little sense during a global health pandemic, “us first” has morphed into “us at home first” for the world’s diasporas.

China is the only known exception, with its embassy this month facilitating the vaccination of its citizens in Thailand. A survey of embassies from other vaccine-flush nations found most leaning on Thai assurances of universal vaccination to abdicate responsibility.

“Australia’s COVID-19 vaccinations are being rolled out domestically to people in Australia. These vaccinations will only be available in Australia,” reads an email from the Australians. British Deputy Ambassador Alexandra McKenzie said in a recorded message that NHS services were only for residents of the United Kingdom. The French reiterated Tuesday that they were really, very, quite sure Thailand would make good on its pledge, eventually.

Skepticism that this will happen is fed by more than just an inflated sense of entitlement or even, in some cases, the easily stoked outrage of white fragility.

Call just about any hospital and the message is clear: non-Thais will be vaccinated later. Some of the foreigners who did manage to secure vaccine appointments through their Thai social security cards have reported that they were canceled because the limited supply is destined for Thai shoulders.

Not for the elderly or vulnerable sans national ID card, nor that of any group deemed a priority. Not even, apparently, the foreign educators who teach Thai children.

Karina Patterson, 33 from the U.S. state of Colorado, said word spread among the foreign-born teachers at her private school that all of their Thai colleagues had been vaccinated.

Not only is traveling home too expensive, Karina is also anxious about leaving the country after being stranded seven months in the United States last year when Thailand barred travel. Her school was sympathetic and allowed her to teach remotely.

She wants the vaccine in part because her job puts her in proximity to thousands of students.

“We’re totally left out. We’re not even mad at the school, it’s not the school’s fault,” she said. “Our embassy has deserted us, and the Thai government … you know how that’s gone for them.”

She’s quick to note that she’s not expecting Thailand to pay for her shot and would gladly cover the cost.

“I don’t expect the Thai government to take care of me, but I do expect my government to take care of me,” she said. “Their lack of response to me is disgusting, in my opinion.”

Danny Warriner, a 44-year-old Briton who this week put his embassy on blast via its Facebook page, expressed the same frustration.

“I feel let down by the embassy’s generic response and the overall lack of action here, in the country,” he said.

Given the organized American campaign and U.S. President Joseph Biden’s recent commitment to exporting tens of millions of unused doses overseas, we wanted to ask his top diplomat in Thailand, embassy Charge d’Affaires Michael Heath, about what it would take to see a policy change.

Instead we got a brief statement reiterating that policy and passing the buck back to Thailand:

“The Department of State does not provide direct medical care to private U.S. citizens abroad and has no current plans to provide vaccinations,” it said. “We continue working with the Royal Thai Government to advocate that they provide equal vaccine access to residents of all nationalities because none of us is safe until all of us are safe.”

It also encouraged U.S. nationals to sign up for its robo email service.

But even were vaccine-hoarding nations to share their largesse, Thailand may not rank high in priority. While the outbreak has taken a turn for the worse, it is nowhere near India levels of calamity. Nor is its robust public health system nearly as dysfunctional as, say, that of the United States.

Managing the importation and distribution of medicines that require special handling and refrigeration would be a major logistical feat.

Except that it’s been done already. Last month, the U.S. State Department shipped vaccines to its 200-plus missions worldwide to vaccinate all of its diplomats, their dependents and staff regardless of citizenship.

Some Thai employees at the embassy took to social media to proudly show off their vaccination documents. That might have been perceived as bad optics; their posts were later scrubbed from the net.

Risley still believes his government will come through.

“It’s clear there are people in Washington who are aware of this issue as it affects Americans in many countries, including Thailand,” he said.

Come June 7, if Thailand opens registration to foreign nationals, will he get in line? Risley said he would consult with his doctor first.

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