The muggy heat or passing businesspeople didn’t faze the man sprawled out on a sidewalk in central Bangkok. His head rested on a sports bag that contained his meager possessions. A flute lay in his outstretched hand. Playing traditional melodies on it was the only way he had to encourage passersby to give spare change.
Disheveled and shoeless, the middle-aged man looked out of place beside the luxury shopping mall where, inside, the city’s wealthy dined in gourmet restaurants and browsed for designer bags from Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermes.
The pitiful sight is hardly unique in Bangkok anymore. Across the Thai capital, the number of homeless people has grown markedly in recent months as an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak has battered the country’s once relatively robust economy.
As jobs dried up, untold numbers of low-income earners were plunged into abject penury. Many of the poorest wound up without a roof over their heads.
Some of them were on a nearby street corner, sitting and reclining on sheets of cardboard laid on the pavement. Unemployed, the footpath had been their home for days.
“We have no money and nowhere to go,” said one of them, a scruffy man who appeared to be in his 40s.
When the rain comes, which it does frequently these days, the group seeks shelter under the eaves of nearby buildings. But that’s not the worst of it. Nor is it the gnawing hunger. The worst is a sense of hopelessness.
None of the vagrants wore face masks, which is mandatory in public during the ongoing pandemic, yet they weren’t bothered about getting infected, or arrested.
“Am I afraid of getting Covid?” the man pondered when he was asked. “I don’t care if I get sick or die,” he added with a tone of resignation.
A couple of his companions were visibly high or inebriated, a testament to the toll that substance abuse was taking on them. Many homeless in Bangkok are addicted to cheap and readily available methamphetamines. Others suffer from mental health issues.
Many depend on the kindness of strangers and the food, water and cash they give for their survival.
One such stranger is Supansa Boontong, a street vendor who sells barbecued meats on skewers and traditional homemade desserts. Every day, she hands out leftovers to people living rough on the street.
“I feel sorry for them,” she said. “Nowadays it’s easy for poor people to lose the little they have.”
As she makes her daily rounds past the high-end malls in the Siam area, she sees several homeless people.
“Some of them stay on the streets long-term. Others come and go. I think they get a job or some money from somewhere,” Supansa said.
Yet even as Bangkok’s economy slowly restarts after a months-long lockdown, the plight of the city’s poorest residents is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Thailand is the most economically unequal country in Southeast Asia with the richest 1 percent of Thais owning two-thirds of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 10 percent own no wealth at all, according to a 2018 survey by the Credit Suisse Research Institute.
Even the bottom half of Thais owned only a 1.7 percent share in the country’s wealth while the top 10 percent had a nearly 86 percent share. Income inequality was also found to be the worst in Southeast Aisa.
At the same time, the ratio of household debt to income was nearly 149 percent in 2019.
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic, which has only exacerbated the stark inequalities between rich and poor. The severe downturn in the economy, fueled by a total absence of mass tourism for over a year, has driven millions of Thais back into poverty, making it hard for them to make ends meet.
“The Covid-19 outbreak will only deepen existing income and wealth inequalities. If Thailand’s economic history offers any guide, income distribution will worsen in the coming months,” M. Niaz Asadullah, a professor of development economics, and Ruttiya Bhula-or, associate dean of the College of Population Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, warned recently in a commentary.
“A prolonged crisis is likely to deplete whatever valuable assets [poorer Thais] have. The adverse impact on inequality will only increase if more decisive and targeted measures are not taken for the poor and these vulnerable groups.
“Millions of Thais remained marginalized even before the Covid-19 outbreak. With its already highly unequal distribution of income and wealth, Thailand cannot afford a further widening of the wealth gap. Therefore, more extensive and universal protection of those in vulnerable employment groups should be the policy priority as the coronavirus crisis intensifies in the coming months.”
However, no sustained government programs aimed at alleviating the financial situation of impoverished citizens have been in the offing. Nor is likely that any will be forthcoming under the current conservative military-allied government, whose priorities appear to lie elsewhere than poverty alleviation.
As matters stand, many Thais now languishing homeless on the streets of Bangkok will continue to have to depend on the kindness of strangers to survive.
That’s hardly a fair or sustainable state of affairs, according to Supansa, the street vendor. “It’s not handouts from me or others these poor people need. They need decent jobs and help from the government,” she said.
The original version of this story appreared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.