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World As the Delta variant of coronavirus rips through Thailand, entire households are being infected

23:11  22 july  2021
23:11  22 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Living as a large family under the same roof during a COVID-19 lockdown would be challenging at the best of times, but imagine there are 14 of you and 11 are infected with the virus.

That is the situation for Chaniya Tusamut's family in Thailand's capital Bangkok.

The 47-year-old was in tears as she told the ABC how heartbreaking it had been as one relative after another tested positive.

The oldest was 76 years old and the youngest was just six.

"I am so stressed, so stressed, so many of us got it," she said.

"When I watched the news I thought it wouldn't happen to us, I thought we had protected ourselves and were being safe."

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Thailand is currently battling its third, longest-running, and most severe wave of coronavirus since the pandemic began.

Since April there have been more than 420,000 cases and more than 3,600 deaths.

Daily case numbers hit a new record of 13,655 on Thursday, with 87 deaths.

The situation has been exacerbated by a shortage of vaccines that has resulted in just over five per cent of the population being fully inoculated.

The coronavirus spread through Ms Tusamut's home after one relative went out and had dinner with some neighbours a few times over the course of a week.

Now, Ms Tusamut, her son (6), mother (76), brother (52), sisters (45 and 38), brother-in-law (70), sister-in-law (50), nieces (17 and 21), and nephew (21) are all infected.

"My mum was the first to have symptoms, a high fever and she couldn't breathe well," Ms Tusamut said.

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"So I took her to do a COVID-19 test and she got a positive result.

"We all started having a fever and a cough, and my nieces and nephew and I lost our sense of taste and smell."

Every member of the household, a four-storey home in central Bangkok, then got tested.

Incredibly, one brother, a sister, and a nephew returned negative test results, but they live on a different floor to those who tested positive, and use a separate bathroom.

As COVID-19 spread through the rest of the house, the family set about trying to alert Thai health authorities and find hospital beds, but Ms Tusamut said it was "difficult to find any official help".

"It was chaotic, I feel exhausted," Ms Tusamut said.

"I've been on the phone all day over the past five to six days and I could not reach anyone.

"I called [various government hotlines] but there was no point, all the lines were busy and even the insurance company line was busy."

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After a couple of days, one hospital sent oxygen and medicine for Ms Tusamut's elderly mother, who also suffers from intestinal cancer, heart problems and high blood pressure.

On day six, the same hospital was able to provide a bed for the 76-year-old.

"I'm worried about whether she will survive or not," Ms Tusamut told the ABC.

"There has been so much news about old people so I'm worried. I told my mum to keep fighting."

Hospital bed shortage in Bangkok

The sharp rise in cases in Thailand has caused a severe shortage of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, primarily in the capital where most new infections are the highly infectious Delta variant.

At first, the Thai government's policy was to admit every positive case to a hospital, but as the numbers exploded that was changed to allow patients with less serious symptoms to isolate at home or in community centres.

Hospital bed numbers have been boosted with the construction of several field hospitals – including facilities in sporting stadiums, airport cargo facilities, and temples.

But demand for beds continues to exceed supply.

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This week, Ms Tusamut and her six-year-old son were transferred to a so-called 'hospitel', which is a hotel quarantine arrangement for patients with less serious symptoms.

Two of her sisters and her sister-in-law have also been taken to hospital, while the rest of the family is still waiting to hear back from health authorities.

COVID-19 risk in Thailand's multi-generational homes

Households with several generations living together, often in a small space, can be found right across Bangkok.

In Thai culture, it is common for the elderly to live with their adult children so they can be taken care of as they age. It is not unusual for extended family members to live under the same roof, too.

Greg Lange from the Bangkok Community Help Foundation (BCHF) told the ABC this is especially the case in tightly-packed, low-socio economic areas.

BCHF volunteers work mainly in the capital's largest slum, Klong Toey, which is home to more than 130,000 people.

"In the West, if you got COVID you would go into your own private room and you would be isolated and then your wife or your husband would be putting your meals outside the bedroom door," Mr Lange said.

"But in Klong Toey, that absolutely cannot happen — you're just stuck there in that household, and they're breathing the same air as you, and with the Delta variant it's extremely contagious and it's going to infect everyone in that family."

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The BCHF, which is made up of Thais and expats, started out delivering meals, but as the pandemic grew so too did the volunteers' workload.

Now, they also pack and deliver care packages, source oxygen for people who cannot get a hospital bed, and are trying to set up community centres for those who have nowhere to isolate.

"There's been cases where someone who was infected left the household and was staying in a car and there was a desperate plea of 'please help', and then there are people who just go to the hospital and just wait outside," Mr Lange said.

He added that while half of Klong Toey's residents were fully vaccinated with China's Sinovac at the start of the third wave, some were suffering from coronavirus symptoms.

Government criticised for pandemic response

There is growing anger around Thailand about the government's handling of the pandemic, with street protests held in recent weeks to demand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign.

That has been coupled with criticism of Mr Prayuth for failing to secure early, effective vaccines in enough quantities.

This week, the Director of the National Vaccine Institute, Nakorn Premsri, apologised to the public.

"The National Vaccine Institute tried our best but we still cannot provide enough vaccines for the current situation, which is unexpected," he said.

Thailand mostly relies on Sinovac but also uses AstraZeneca, which a Thai company owned by the country's king has been producing in smaller-than-expected quantities.

The Health Ministry recently announced people who have received one dose of the Sinovac vaccine will now get the AstraZeneca shot as their second dose.

It came amid reports of breakthrough infections in healthcare workers who have been fully vaccinated with two doses of Sinovac.

The World Health Organisation said a review of Sinovac's Vaccine efficacy results showed that the vaccine prevented "symptomatic disease in 51 per cent of those vaccinated". WHO also said it prevented severe COVID-19 and hospitalisation in 100 per cent of the studied population.

Thailand has signed agreements to import some Sinopharm, Pfizer, and Moderna shots, which will arrive in the coming months.

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People have been able to register in advance for the Moderna vaccine through private hospitals, but will have to pay about $150.

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