As Thailand continues its struggle to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, Buddhist temples across the country have come to the aid of those in need. Nearly 1,000 soup kitchens, known in Thai as rong than, have been created in and near Buddhist temples in Bangkok and all of the kingdom’s 76 provinces to cook food for low-income earners and others in economic distress.
Thailand was the first nation outside of China to confirm a case of COVID-19 in January. Since then, a number of government and social measures, primarily relying on surveillance and contact tracing, have helped keep the pandemic under control in the nation of some 69 million people.
In late March, as new confirmed cases began to rise quickly, the government issued an emergency lockdown, closing many businesses and curbing non-essential travel. The measure was a success in public health terms—the curve was flattened—but the economic hardship continues to ripple throughout the country. This week, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking (JSCCIB) predicted an overall 3–5 per cent contraction in the Thai economy; a projection which is more optimistic than the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s estimate of a 6–7 per cent downturn.
According to National Office of Buddhism chief Narong Songarom: “270,000 people have been helped,” as of 13 May. Utilizing the larger temples across the country, 10.9 million baht (US$340,000) has been spent preparing meals. “That means the cost is around 40 baht per head,” Narong Songarom said. (Bangkok Post)
Food has also been distributed to smaller temples throughout the country, as many monks are avoiding their regular alms rounds to reduce social contact that would potentially spread the virus. Narong said that temples are cognizant of the need for the strictest hygiene standards in order to prevent accidental transmission of the coronavirus through the distribution of the food or as people wait in lines.
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, said Wat Rakhang Khositaram, a riverside temple near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, could serve as a model. “The temple takes care of more than 1,000 people every day,” he said on Wednesday. “A rong than is not only a place to help poor people, it is also a channel for the well-to-do to make donations.” (Bangkok Post)
As of this writing, there have been 4,431,885 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 298,202 deaths according to official sources. This week, researchers in the UK and the US have suggested that official counts may be underreporting deaths. In both countries, researchers compared “excess deaths” this year over what would have been expected in a normal year. (The New York Times, The Guardian) The actual numbers of deaths are higher, they suggest, because many people have died at home or were otherwise never tested for COVID-19.
Thailand has recorded 3,018 confirmed cases and 56 deaths. On 13 May the nation reported no new cases for the first time since 9 March. Cases have been declining steadily since the lockdown measures began in early April.
“We all can be relieved but not complacent,” said government spokesman Taweesin Wisanuyothin. “We need to continue with the main measures . . . wash hands, practice social distancing, and wear masks.” (Reuters)
According to a 2015 census, 94.5 per cent of Thailand’s population practices Buddhism. Islam is practiced by 4.29 per cent of Thais, predominantly in the south of the country. Christians make up just over 1 per cent of the populous. The kingdom has some 40,000 Buddhist temples with almost 300,000 Buddhist monks.
Temple kitchens hand out food aid (Bangkok Post)
JSCCIB expects Thai economy to contract by 3-5% this year (Thailand Business News)
America’s True Covid Toll Already Exceeds 100,000 (The New York Times)
Coronavirus: How many people have died in the UK? (The Guardian)