Bangkok, Thailand- When the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in April last year, *Hnin Hnin was able to keep her school open for migrant children and spend her mornings as she usually did, playing word games on a large screen. whiteboard as her five-year-old students watched.
Infections and deaths remained in the single digits at the time, and Hnin Hnin, a teacher from Myanmar, was cautiously optimistic that the pandemic would end soon. Her school, which is supported by a local charity, received ample food, hygiene kits and masks.
But a year later, an outbreak caused by the highly contagious Delta strain has led to an increase in infections in factories in the area, overwhelming hospitals and a prolonged lockdown of provinces on the Thai-Myanmar border and forced closure of the school of Hnin Hnin.
“A lot of people started dying,” she told Al Jazeera. “Many of my friends died. It spread very quickly and now many areas in Mae Sot are infected.”
The virus hit especially close to home when Hnin Hnin’s boyfriend and her co-teacher became ill with COVID-19 in July. Her friend had tried to go to hospital when her condition deteriorated but was rejected – they said they had no bed for her. When she tried to call for help to reach her house, no one came.
“She received no help from the Thai government,” Hnin Hnin said, adding that paramedics only respond to calls from Thai nationals. Hnin’s friend Hnin finally died at home in late July.
“She was just one of many of my friends who got sick.”
‘The real solution’
The latest wave has shaken Thailand, pushing the number of COVID-19 cases to nearly 1.3 million with more than 13,000 deaths recorded. Thailand reports at least 15,000 cases a day with an average of about 175 daily deaths – in contrast to last year’s figures when daily cases were few and deaths rare.
As COVID-19 ramps up, organizations working at the border say the thousands of migrants and more than 90,000 refugees there face a range of challenges, such as lack of access to coronavirus-related healthcare. And as factories and workshops close again, their livelihoods are also at risk, ripping off the mental health of many migrants, experts say.
Hnin Hnin now faces the possibility of closing her school for many months.
“With the lockdown, people started running out of jobs and money,” Hin Hin told Al Jazeera. “In the beginning we were dependent on donated money, but that is running out.”
Hnin Hnin earned about 3,000 Thai baht ($100) per month. But now she can barely afford enough food. She feels responsible for her students, worries about their safety, hoping they won’t get in trouble if they’re not in class.
“I really hope migrant schools can open soon,” she said. “Because many children now have to work, or end up on the street.”
Authorities in Mae Sot imposed COVID-19 restrictions in the area after cases increased at several factories in late June. That month, it was confirmed that more than half of the workers in three factories, 452 people, had COVID-19, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper. After the factory outbreak, the governor of the region ordered the three factories to be closed.
In July, local authorities imposed a curfew on the surrounding Tak province, preventing people from leaving their homes after 8 p.m. The Post also reported that migrant workers were not allowed to move between districts unless they had permission from the Mae Sot district chief.
In addition to the heightened restrictions, Hnin Hnin’s community has had very little access to vaccines, leaving them exposed to the virus. When the Thais around her started getting vaccinated, she wondered why her entire community was being shut out.
Al Jazeera made several requests to government spokesmen about the lack of access to vaccines for migrants at the border. None of the officials responded.
“Lockdowns are controlling COVID-19, but migrants are not getting financial support to get through the times when they lose their income. Vaccines are the real solution,” said Braham Press, director of MAP Foundation, an NGO that aims to empower Myanmar migrant communities living and working in Thailand. “But for migrants, getting a vaccine is questionable. A handful of migrants have had employers vaccinated, but most have had to pay service fees.”
Without adequate protection and income, Brahm says the current situation is negatively impacting the mental health of migrants. He adds that many migrant workers have gone into debt to survive the economic impact of previous waves.
‘Concerned about my family’
Thailand is a country of origin, destination and transit for migrant populations in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom shares four land borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, and an estimated four to five million migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and other regional countries are working in Thailand today, according to the International Organization for Migration. Refugees and displaced persons are also constantly crossing the border into Myanmar in search of safety. The February 1 coup in Myanmar sparked another wave of people fleeing the country.
As the number of COVID-19 cases increases, the nine camps along the border are also being closed. This is accompanied by movement restrictions that have affected the flow of resources such as food and medicine.
*Lily, a 23-year-old refugee now working in Mae Sot, says she is concerned about her family living in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp where she grew up.
“I’m so worried about my family. I want them to have access to vaccines because they are old and my mother has a chronic illness,” said Lilly. “She is not in good health. My parents can’t go to work and sometimes they don’t have the money to buy food. I send money when I can.”
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says migrants and refugees should be fully involved in the government’s COVID-19 response, including treatments for the disease and vaccine distribution plan.
“COVID-19 affects everyone and POCs (people of care) in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as the local population,” said Morgane Roussel Hemery, associate External Relations Officer at UNHCR. “The POCs may be particularly vulnerable due to challenges they may face in meeting their basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19 and getting hygiene items or medical support.”
In June, Thai authorities closed and sealed more than 600 construction camps in Bangkok, which were home to more than 80,000 migrant workers. They were not allowed to leave their own home and were effectively locked up. Government officials cited security concerns after COVID-19 clusters were found in migrant communities.
“Most migrants get a daily wage and if they don’t work, they don’t get a wage. For some who are locked up on the factory grounds, they can get support with some food,” said Sally Thompson, the executive director of The Border Consortium, a group that provides food, shelter and other support to refugees from Myanmar. “For others who live outside the compound, it is more difficult and if they have to take care of dependents, the burden increases.”
The decision to segregate large groups of migrants has sparked widespread mistrust of the authorities, with many migrant workers saying they feel they are being constantly mistreated by the Thai state.
In Mae Sot, Hnin Hnin is concerned about her students’ lack of access to education and fears that more people would die without vaccines and access to health care.
“The problem is, if you’re Thai, you can get the vaccines for free,” she said.
“For the migrants, we can’t get it even if we pay money. I think some people will die if they don’t have access to health care.”
Additional reporting by Linn Let Arkar.
All migrants’ names have been changed to protect their identities for privacy and security reasons.