Surrealism in Thailand

We are staying in a lovely hotel in Phuket. Everything is clean and new. Time to go down for breakfast. We step out of our 5th-floor room to the open-air corridor, and admire the tropical forest canopy, the sparkling sea, the fresh morning air. Take the elevator down to the breakfast room, eager to see what luxurious feast awaits us. The elevator doors open to a cloud of noxious, opaque gas. The pits of Hell. We retreat in a hurry, back to the room.

It’s not a dream, not an attack, not an industrial accident. The local authorities send a truck around every few weeks to spray insecticide, to kill off the mosquitos. The timing for us made a perfect moment of surrealism.

And a perfect metaphor, I think, for what is going on in our collective experience—except, the insecticide gas dissipates in 20 minutes or so. CoVid-19 will take a lot longer.

Although Thailand was one of the first countries outside China to record cases of the infection, it hasn’t made a large impact here. In mid-March, I was still able to believe that we could travel from Chiang Mai to Phuket, stay a few weeks, and come back, without any serious disruption. Only a few days before our flight, Phuket decided it was too dangerous to let people gather at bars, or go to massage shops for treatment. All public entertainments have been shut down. But it was too late to change our plans. Today, our second day here, the news comes from Chiang Mai. By the time we get back, the same restrictions will be in place there, as well. No shopping, even, except for food and medical necessities. No swimming, even in the private pools of the condo.

And yet… here we are on the beach, where perhaps 100 or so tourists are relaxing, just like any other beach vacation. No masks, no special washing facilities. Almost all are European; I wonder what they think about the contrast between their situation here vs. the situation at home? How long will this last?

MY RELATIONSHIP with the Covid-19 crisis has not been about personal survival; the shock of its impact reached me through my financial survival. I depend on stock and bond investments for the income that I live on; for 12 years, I’ve been carefully nursing my portfolio, constantly alert for a threat to it. I could see trouble coming months ahead; I had taken every reasonable precaution against being caught in a stock market crash or credit crisis. So at the beginning of March, when the expected crash began, I was ready with hedges. My money was concentrated in high-grade investment. And when these funds took a big dip, I thought, normal market fluctuation, take advantage of the dip and buy more of the good stuff. And the next day, instead of bouncing back up as expected, the high-quality funds are down another 20%—completely senseless. And the next day after than, down again, maybe another 20%, even 30%. And I realize, I have no idea what is going on here. The elevator that should have opened on a nice breakfast has instead shown me the pit of Hell.

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WHAT’S NEXT? I have no idea. We will stay in Phuket until the end of this week, then hopefully return home to Chiang Mai. Hopefully, the pandemic will not yet be so wildly out-of-control that even domestic flights are banned. And I will be thinking how to adjust my life so a 20-30% reduction in investment income won’t cripple me.

Today, Esso turns on the TV to watch local news. We see video footage of big crowds of people—wearing face masks, but queued up by the hundreds, shoulder to shoulder, inches apart. They are in the bus station in Bangkok, waiting to go home to their provinces. I can guess why: Bangkok is too dangerous. As for the face masks, most were bought for 10¢ each at the 7-Eleven. Useless against infection (although the poor Thais don’t know that), mandatory to signal virtuous social concern. You could hardly paint a better picture of how to spread an epidemic. Within a week or two, Thailand will be exploding with new infections, and the officials will say, but we did everything we could.

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