I had been waiting to get vaccinated for close to a year. But the Thai government made it almost impossible — until now.
My body started to tense with the cathartic realization that I was about to receive my first dose. I had been waiting in line for about 20 minutes with dozens of other expats. Most of us had been waiting since around December of last year for this moment, or at least since vaccines became widely accessible in our respective “home” countries.
For countless reasons, many of us decided to bunker down in Thailand waiting for the vaccines to reach Thai shores. And when the planes started landing with vaccine shipments we knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight.
But suddenly we were all crammed into an open space of Chiang Mai’s Promenada mall as we were guided through the mirage-like vaccine drive. We had all signed up by email for the vaccine event, they were to give us two doses of Pfizer for free. Yet there was this suspicious sense that all of us had just got lucky — that we had stumbled upon mRNA gold.
“Pfizer in Thailand,” a stapled up sign read as you walked in the open space. It’s true, I wasn’t expecting this. It felt surreal. Just a few metres ahead, I noticed a dense line of sleepy-eyed health professionals who were busy administering the vaccines. I could see the little bottles with my own eyes. The medicine was beckoning at us from behind a line of yellow tape.
Suddenly an administrator in his 60s started barking orders at us as we flinched from the sound of his little speaker.
“You know that you’re in the 10:30 line, right?” he barked at a man who had apparently confused his timeslot. “You need to wait another hour, go to the back of the line right now,” he said. “What about you?” he pointed to another victim. “Let me see your paperwork.”
It seems that his embassy had assigned him the unenviable task of making sure we weren’t cutting in line or lying on our applications.
But despite this minor annoyance, we were still eager to get on our way. Alongside the proctor stood a group of other doctors who were scanning our paperwork to ensure that we were in the right place. We all nodded along and put on our best smiles.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that some official would show up any minute to explain that this was all a terrible mistake. There must be something wrong with my paperwork, I thought. Maybe I filled in the documents with the wrong-coloured pen or there was a problem with my signature, common grounds for being turned away from such things in Thailand.
In normal circumstances, Thai bureaucracy isn’t normally this organized. And getting jabbed wasn’t always this simple.
Unlike the US or other European countries, you can’t merely walk into a pharmacy and kindly tell the pharmacist, “I’ll have the Moderna please.”
Instead, the process of getting vaccinated has been a remarkable failure on many levels. Some would go as far to say that the vaccine rollout was dead on arrival. Counting on another year of low cases, the government even admitted it was slow to procure vaccines early on, overlooking the time it takes to produce and ship the vaccines.
And by the time the Delta variant made its way to Thailand, it was already too late.
One prominent Thai academic who won’t be named here, told me, “There are flaws that are integral to the very DNA of the Thai political order that mean you could wait a hundred years, and they could still never get 60% or 70% of Thais vaccinated.”
Fortunately, he was somewhat wrong about this. The vaccine rollout is slowly but surely improving. At this moment, about 35% of Thailand’s population has been fully inocoluted. But since the beginning, most Thais have not been allowed to choose which vaccine they would put in their bodies. This lack of choice actually pushed hundreds of rich Thais to fly across the globe in search of mRNA jabs.
But this academic still has a point.
Back in April, the COVID-19 situation in Bangkok began deteriorating so rapidly that hospitals were running out of resources. The new outbreak led to a total shutdown of the Thai capital with strict lockdowns and restrictions. Hospitals were completely overwhelmed. Just a few months ago, it was almost impossible to find a bed for Covid patients.
Today the country is inching towards 1.8 million cases with almost 19,000 deaths. Some would argue that this recent surge in cases is directly a cause of the government’s sluggish vaccine rollout.
There is also considerable vaccine hesitancy here.
For months, a narrative was propagated that the mRNA vaccines are more effective. Although there is truth to this, it’s deterred many Thais from getting the jab.
Today,Moderna and Pfizer are chic in a country where only Sinovac and Astrazeneca have been available over the last year.
Thais are reluctant to take Sinovac as they say studies show that the Chinese made vaccines are less effective. AstraZeneca has also taken some flak, in part because the corporation responsible for manufacturing and distributing the vaccines has no background in vaccine development, leading many to scratch their heads over ulterior financial motivations.
But for foreigners under 60, getting vaccinated has been almost an impossibility. It’s particularly tricky if you’re a healthy young adult in your early to late 20s, even 30s. There have been extremely few opportunities for some of us to even apply for appointments.
Moderna sold some doses here and there a few months back, but they never followed up by confirming appointments even after people paid $100 for two doses. They still owe me my money today.
But corruption and incompetence aside, there I was inching closer to the final phase of the process. Finally, I was facing the last health professional gatekeeper. I could feel the cold sting of the vaccine getting closer.
“Are you sure you consent to taking this vaccine?” the woman asked me with raised eyebrows.
“Yes,” I replied. It was finally time.
Finally I was seated beside one of those dreary eyed women who had been jabbing away at the masses for hours. She didn’t even look or speak to me. But she didn’t need to. I rolled up my sleeve and let the needle do all the talking.