A father sings with his young children at a street market to earn money after being laid off. (Photo: Bangkok Herald)
A father sings with his young children at a street market to earn money after being laid off. (Photo: Bangkok Herald)

The number of Thais living in poverty likely will grow to 15 million – 22.4 percent of the population – by next year because of continued Covid-19 restrictions that are battering the economy, the Finance Ministry said.

There are already 14 million poor people in Thailand, one of the world’s most unequal-income nations in the world, where the top 1 percent of the populace controls more than two-thirds of the country’s wealth, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report.

At the same time, some 80 percent of the land in Thailand is owned by the richest 5 percent, a study by researchers at Bangkok’s Thammasat University has found.

Although official statistics on the rate of grinding poverty in Thailand can be unreliable, it is widely believed that millions of Thais have been plunged into poverty since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year as the Southeast Asian nation’s tourism-dependent economy has suffered greatly from a lack of foreign tourists.

Before the pandemic tourism accounted for around a fifth of gross domestic product and employed millions of people, including many low-income earners, but there has been no mass tourism for a year and a half.

“We’ve been struggling, but at least I have managed to stay open [even as] many other sellers went bankrupt,” Rochana Phunsa, a vendor who sells souvenirs and Thai-style clothing items at a shopping mall in central Bangkok catering to foreign tourists, told UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.

Rochana ships items to buyers abroad who order online, which has ensured she could keep her business despite a drop in monthly revenues.

At the mall, which is located near several others, entire floors have been left empty for over a year, with vendors no longer able to pay rent having moved out.

Numerous low-income earners who made a living from tourism, including street vendors, masseuses and taxi drivers, have also been without steady incomes throughout the pandemic.

Although the government has provided various forms of financial assistance to tens of millions of Thais, these handouts have been limited and sporadic with many of the most financially vulnerable people remaining indigent, according to analysts.

A recent study by Thailand Science Research and Innovation found that some 800,000 Thais were plunged into poverty last year while some 2 million people became unemployed in 2020 as the country’s GDP contracted by nearly 7 percent.

Many others are thought to have been plunged into poverty this year owing to the ongoing pandemic.

The worst-affected people include menial laborers over the age of 40 who have little education and are technologically illiterate, according to the findings.

Meanwhile, experts have warned that Thailand’s tourism industry is facing a long road to recovery, which means that tourism-related incomes will remain comparatively limited.

The country reopened to mass tourism earlier this month, but the number of visitors — which has remained in the tens of thousands — has so far been negligible compared to the rate before the pandemic when Thailand received some 40 million visitors a year.