Thai Volunteers Aid COVID Patients in Need of Care, Testing

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- As Thailand's medical system struggles beneath a surge of coronavirus cases, ordinary people are helping to plug the gaps, risking their own health to bring care and supplies to often terrified, exhausted patients who've fallen through the cracks.

In the Samai area of Bangkok, Ekapob Laungprasert's team heads out for another weekend on the front lines of a crisis.

His volunteer group, Samai Will Survive, has been working around the clock, responding to about a hundred SOS calls daily from desperate COVID-19 patients unable to get the help they need.

"We realize how hard working and how tired doctors and nurses are," says the 38-year-old businessman. "What we are trying to do today is to help relieve some of the burden. Before, all cases must go to the hospital, so today there are no hospital beds. So we volunteer to help out."

It's not long before they're in action: Malee, a COVID-19 positive woman whose breathing has suddenly worsened. The group, wearing personal protective equipment, delivers oxygen and much-needed reassurance to Malee and her husband, an army officer who also has the virus.

"I lost hope even with the army. I called doctors at field hospitals. All they told me to do was to send information, just send information," says Worawit Srisang. "I got the same answers everywhere. At least these guys visit us in person. What the patient needs is a chance to see a doctor, not just send information."

Thailand's predicament is stark. There are now around 15,000 new confirmed cases per day and rising. In Bangkok alone, 20,000 people are waiting for a hospital bed.

So homespun heroes like Ekapob and his group -- buying equipment and supplies with public donations -- are an essential safety net, gaining crucial time for both patients and a health care system under severe strain.

There's another call: an elderly woman with COVID-19 symptoms. But she's not fit to wait in line for hours at an overwhelmed test center, so for the moment she's stuck where she is.

"Grandma can't get tested, so she lies sick in bed. If we want to send her to the hospital, they will ask for her test result. So we are back in a circle, because we would ask them to do the test," Ekapob says, looking in through the window.

It's very likely she has COVID-19. All her family members have already tested positive.

After a check, his team members decide she's not in imminent danger. They hook her up with oxygen, then it's back into the night and on to the next case.

There's a raging debate in Thailand now over the national vaccination roll-out. Many Thais are angry over the slow pace and a perceived lack of accountability for the fact that only around 5% of the population currently is fully protected.

The volunteers see the consequences almost every night.

They're called to 52-year old Nittaya Kongnuch, who like so many is struggling to breathe normally.

As they try to make her more comfortable, her sister tells an increasingly familiar story. Their mother died last week from the virus, as their urgent calls for help to brimming hospitals went unheeded.

"My mother showed bad symptoms from the beginning. I called and called to tell them my mom couldn't handle this anymore, but nobody came. The nurses kept saying there were no beds," said Piyawan Kodduang, fighting back tears.

Most fatalities occur in private. But not all. Last week, a body lay for hours in a Bangkok street, incurring the wrath of an embarrassed prime minister.

On Saturday night, Ekapob and his team see exactly how that can happen, as they're called to a homeless woman who's showing signs of infection.

As wary residents watch from a distance, the team moves in to carry out a rapid test.

Within a few minutes they have the result: positive.

After making some phone calls, Ekapob finds her a place in a facility where she can be observed while awaiting a bed in a field hospital.

At least she has a fighting chance. Without the volunteers, it's likely she wouldn't have any.

Since the pandemic began in Thailand, there have been 497,302 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4,059 deaths.