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Buddhist Monks on the Frontline as COVID-19 Surges in Thailand

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Buddhist monk Phra Pongpetch Santijittho dons PPE over his robes in order to cremate the body of a COVID-19 victim at a monastery on the outskirts of Bangkok. From channelnewsasia.com

Buddhist monks are joining essential workers on the frontline of Thailand’s COVID-19 response as the Southeast Asian kingdom struggles under the weight of a rapidly escalating third wave of infections. Monastics around the country can be seen clad in personal protective equipment (PPE) to deliver oxygen cylinders, administer COVID tests, and even transport the dead to crematoriums.

Thailand has been engulfed by a third wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections that first emerged on 1 April, traced to a cluster at a high-end Bangkok nightlife district frequented by the politically connected. The outbreak has since resulted in 643,522 COVID-19 patients, according to the official count, of whom 428,380 have recovered. Earlier today, the authorities reported a record high of 188 COVID-19-related deaths and 20,200 new cases over the previous 24 hours as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to spread nationwide.

“There are a lot of Thais who are still ignored by the public health system,” said 33-year-old Phra Mahapromphong, deputy abbot of Wat Suthi Wararam, a riverside Buddhist monastery in southwest Bangkok. Since 21 July, the monk has been visiting the Thai capital’s poorer neighborhoods, bringing oxygen, food, and medical supplies to the needy, and collecting test samples. “We take care of everyone we come across,” he added. (Bangkok Post

Wat Suthi Wararam is ust one of many monasteries that has been turned into an isolation center for COVID patients, with doctors and nurses working alongside the Buddhist monks. 

“Monks are able to live because we rely on people’s donations,” Phra Mahapromphong observed. “So it’s time for us to give back to the people. At the very least, we can encourage them to keep fighting.” (Bangkok Post)

With infections and deaths escalating and the healthcare system stretched thin, Thailand’s government has extended lockdown measures for a further two weeks from yesterday, with another 16 provinces added to the high-risk zone of maximum restrictions that now encompasses Greater Bangkok and 28 of the kingdom’s 76 provinces, representing 40 per cent of the population.

Disinfecting monastic ritual implements prior to cremating the body of a COVID-19 victim. From reuters.com

Earlier in July, a monastery in Pathum Thani, on the outskirts of Bangkok, reported that it has been cremating 4–5 bodies per day, compared with 2–3 per month before the pandemic. “I haven’t seen other monks in the temple for a while now because I’ve been busy cremating and collecting ashes from dusk until dawn,” one monk, Pongpetch Santijittho, was quoted as saying. (Reuters)

After an initially successful response  last year in the early months of the pandemic, the Thai government has failed to follow through with a decisive vaccine response. Critics have accused the military government of lacking foresight in managing the pandemic, with the national vaccination program hobbled by delays, confusion, and official obfuscation over the procurement and supply of vaccines. In particular, the government has struggled to secure sufficient vaccines in a timely manner due to complacency over the country’s initial success. 

At the time of writing on 4 August, Thailand had reported a total of 672,385 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 5,503 related deaths, according to data reported by the Bangkok Post newspaper. The authorities have reported administering 18.2 million vaccine doses to a population of some 69 million.* Total global cases have exceeded 199.57 million, with 4.25 million related deaths recorded and 4.15 billion vaccine doses administered.*

Upriver in northern Bangkok, monks at Wat Chin Wararam Worawiharn are also doing what they can to aid vulnerable Thais neglected by the government. Phra Supornchaithammo has taken on the sobering role of transporting bodies to the crematorium.

“I’m willing to take the risk here. If I contract the virus then I’m ready to accept it without any regret,”the monk remarked. “I didn’t have it in my head that I would be doing something like this when I was ordained, but with a situation like this, everybody needs a helping hand and I’m proud to be here,” he said. (Bangkok Post)

A building in the compound of Wat Suthi Wararam in Bangkok is repurposed as an isolation ward for COVID-19 patients from the local community. From bangkokpost.com

Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 94.5 per cent of the nation’s population of 69 million identifying as Buddhists, according to government census data for 2015. The Southeast Asian kingdom has some 40,000 Buddhist temples and almost 300,000 monks. While communities of female renunciants also exist, the monastic authorities in Thailand have never officially recognized the full ordination of women, and bhikkhunis do not generally enjoy the same level of societal acceptance as their male counterparts.

Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center

See more

COVID-19 OUTBREAK (Bangkok Post)
Record highs: 188 Covid deaths, 20,200 new cases (Bangkok Post)
Monks don protective gear as Covid cases surge (Bangkok Post)
Thailand renews COVID-19 vaccination drive for monks at risk (Reuters)
As outbreak worsens, Thai temple inundated with coronavirus cremations (Reuters)
Thailand reports daily record of new coronavirus cases and new deaths (Reuters)
Thailand’s COVID-19 national vaccination programme hit by supply shortage, uncertain delivery schedule (CNA)

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