Thailand: Spooked by Little Ghosts

The negative reaction by many Thais towards returning workers from South Korea underscore the need for understanding and cooperation in a time of the coronavirus

Commuters wearing facemasks amid fears of the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus ride a train in Bangkok on March 9, 2020. (Photo: Mladen Antonov, AFP)

Sihasak Phuangketkeow

16 March 2020

Until quite recently, not many Thais had heard of the phi noi or “little ghosts” who have recently returned from South Korea to Thailand in increasingly large numbers. They have been fleeing the severe outbreak of the COVID-19. These ghosts are among more than 150,000 Thais who have been working illegally in various parts of South Korea.

About 500,000 Thais visit the country annually, taking advantage of its reciprocal visa-free entry arrangements with Thailand. But quite a substantial number of these Thai visitors have gone there not for tourism but for a different purpose. They are drawn not by the world-wide popularity of contemporary Korean culture but rather by the allure of high-paying but strenuous jobs that very few South Koreans are now willing to perform. These illegal Thai workers – who work in factories and restaurants and on farms – are known among Thais as “little ghosts” — a term generally believed to refer to their de facto non-existent status in South Korea and to their lack of legal rights and entitlements there.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak in December, more than 5,000 such Thai workers had registered to return home under an amnesty program implemented by the Korean authorities. The scheme permitted them to leave the country without penalty; they could return to work legally. By the end of February, about 4,800 of them had returned to Thailand, most of them in the wake of the dramatic jump in cases of infections in South Korea. More than 1,000 who have been registered are still waiting to return. It is not certain how many more of those still remaining in that country will want to follow suit.

The sudden arrival of these “little ghosts” in Thailand, and the expectation of more to follow, has unavoidably led to widespread anxiety in Thailand. There is concern that they will overwhelm extant surveillance and screening procedures. There have been especially strong and negative reactions to the reported calls by some of the “little ghosts” for the government to assist in their repatriation and find employment for them upon their return to Thailand. To compound matters, some of the recent returnees who had been asked to undergo a 14-day quarantine at home have been seen eating out in restaurants or going to pubs or on excursions immediately after arriving home.

Thais have decried these incidents, even though committed by only a few “little ghosts”, as showing lack of responsibility. The incidents have intensified the sense of fear in Thailand since the outbreak of COVID-19. Headlines in all the major newspapers have been swamped by a deluge of articles, expounding on how to handle the returnees. Many Thais have called on the government to impose the same strict measures on them as those imposed on Thais evacuated in February from Wuhan in China when the coronavirus epidemic first broke out. All of the 137 Thais flown out of Wuhan at that time were immediately quarantined at a naval base outside of Bangkok for 14 days, so as to allow for close monitoring of their conditions. Such calls only serve to make the returnees feel unwelcome and stigmatized, rather unfairly, for the actions of a minority among them.

As the saying goes, in such troubled times, fear of the disease can indeed be more dangerous than the disease itself.

In a bid to allay the concerns of the Thai public, the government has now published a list of high-risk countries. This comprises China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. It now requires the application of strict screening measures for travelers from the four countries. Thai citizens who show symptoms, and all Thais workers coming from the highest-risk areas of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea even if they have no symptoms, will be quarantined at the naval base in Sattahip until they recover. Foreigners with fevers will be hospitalised. In addition, the returning Thai workers from elsewhere in South Korea, even after having passed screening at the airport, will be sent to regional centers in or near their hometowns to ascertain whether they should be quarantined at state-designated sites or sent home for self-quarantine.

As comprehensive as these latest measures are, their effectiveness will require more than just the efforts of the government. The episode of the “little ghosts” has shown that containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus depends ultimately on accurate information as well as the cooperation, understanding and sense of responsibility on the part of all the people. As the saying goes, in such troubled times, fear of the disease can indeed be more dangerous than the disease itself.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/30

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