Covid Interrupted: How a family’s dream vacation turned into a covid-interrupted nightmare

Dillon Pienaar knew that there was a spreading virus in Asia and Europe but at the time his home country of South Africa only had five Covid-19 cases; less than Thailand, less than China and less than parts of Europe.

It was going to be a quick holiday, a chance for his kids to see their grandparents and their great-grandmother. 22 days away from Thailand, which at the time was the hardest-hit country in Asia, seemed like a good decision.

There was also very little talk of closing down airspace and locking down whole countries outside of China.

He would spend the first few days of his holidays with his wife Jutaporn and their kids Mattis and Monique touring his old childhood stomping grounds. They spent a few days with his parents in Cape Town before taking an idyllic road trip to his grandmother’s house in the coastal city of Hermanus.

Hermanus is known throughout the world for its spectacular scenery and its whale watching. During the right time of year, Southern Right Whales and Orcas swim right up to the cliffs next to the town. It was also the perfect setting for Mattis and Monique to know their great grandmother.

But almost overnight, the outbreak increased exponentially and in the blink of an eye, all of South Africa was in lockdown. A picturesque retreat suddenly becoming a prison.

“The lockdown happened quickly and it is not like in Thailand. You are not allowed to even leave the house. If you step a foot on the curb outside your house, that is breaking the law,” Jutaporn said.

Difficult decision

The Pienaars arrived in South Africa on the 11th of March with the country reporting five cases. By the end of March, there were 1,353 cases. By mid-April, there were 4,000 cases.

It was in April that the Pienaars contacted the Thai Embassy in Johannesburg looking for a way to get back to Thailand. Thailand had shut its airspace on April 2 as coronavirus numbers approached 2,000 cases and the country entered its own limited lockdown. But the kingdom seemed to be doing a better job containing the virus than South Africa and terrifying numbers in the United States and Europe made the entire family want to “go home.”

The embassy told the Pienaars that Jutaporn and the kids would be entered into a waiting list along with other Thais around the world trying to get back. However, Dillon, as a non-citizen, would not be allowed to return despite having lived in Thailand for more than a decade, owning his own business and having residency.

“I think it’s not only unfair but illogical – we came here together, we should be able to return together, as a family,” said Dillon. “We weren’t asking for free help, we were willing to pay our own way back.”

Government decision

Thailand’s government in April, however, was dealing with more than just criticisms from foreign residents. Thais around the world felt left behind by the Prayut government’s policies.

While countries around the world made headlines for moving heaven and earth to repatriate their citizens living abroad and affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Thailand chose a decidedly different route and asked Thais living overseas not to come home.

By mid-April, nearly 15,000 Thais were waiting to return home. The government made provisions for around 200 repatriations per day, blaming limited quarantine space for the tardiness of their response.

“At the time we had a decision to make, either allow everyone to come back and home quarantine and risk exponential growth in cases or bring people back little by little,” said a senior source in the Ministry of Public Health who asked not to be named. “We made a hard choice but the safest choice.”

Difficult decision

For the Pienaar’s, the family was faced with a difficult choice, either ride out the entire coronavirus case together or send Jutaporn and the kids home.

They decided that both she and the kids should return.

“The decision was of a difficult one but I made it purely for their safety and comfort – this is not our home. Our home is in Bangkok,” said Dillon. “The situation is already quite stressful and uncertain for the children and I felt they need to be home and in some degree of normalcy.”

But despite having reached the decision in April, the slow pace of repatriations and the global nature of the pandemic meant that there were no available flights until the start of May.

By that time, the number of cases in South Africa had shot up to 10,600 cases with 206 fatalities.

“We kept in close contact with the embassy until finally there was a flight available to take us home from Cape Town,” Jutaporn said. “But then we found out the flight was not even full.”

Official policy

Despite pleading with the authorities both in Johannesburg and in Bangkok, Dillon would not be allowed on the empty flight to Bangkok. The family would be going home without him.

“As with other countries, Thailand has to balance limited resources with the effective handling of incoming Thai nationals, who are still being repatriated and continues to be our priority at this time,” said Natapanu Nopakun, the Deputy Spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Our repatriation missions are on the way towards completion, and then we can accommodate…incoming foreigners currently stranded outside of Thailand,” he told Thai Enquirer.

According to Natapanu, the government is currently discussing plans to allow foreign nationals who are residents back into the country but no date has been set as the crisis was not yet over.

“We hope that everyone understands that, even though it may appear that Thailand has won the battle with the virus, this is only the beginning and we have not yet overcome the war,” he said.

A common tale

Natapanu’s statement will unlikely resonate with people like Dillon, trapped away from loved ones and businesses despite having residency or family within Thailand.

“It has been highly stressful and traumatic on the children,” Dillon told Thai Enquirer by phone from South Africa. “If I alone was out of the country at the time it would make more sense but to forcibly separate us really doesn’t.”

“The children miss their father,” Jutaporn told Thai Enquirer as her family were leaving state quarantine. “We just want this crisis to be over so that we can be together as a family again.”

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