Village health volunteers helping to contain the pandemic

Known as the “gray shirt warriors,” over a million village health volunteers, a network founded decades ago, are helping to contain the coronavirus in Thailand by regularly monitoring households in their towns and neighborhoods with an especially close watch on those most vulnerable.

“We conduct home visits and can’t miss a single one, or it could spread the contagion all over the village. However, asking every household for cooperation is not easy because it takes time to raise awareness and build trust,” volunteer Nopphanat Subhakul in Prachuab Khiri Khan told the Bangkok Post.

Nearly one month ago, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared a state of emergency because of Covid-19 and told non-essential businesses to close. At that time, many people feared the virus would spread like wildfire when they saw images of furloughed workers in Bangkok crowding bus terminals to go back to their homes in the provinces.

That outbreak has apparently not materialized, as Thailand still has fewer than 3,000 reported cases, and several provinces have no cases. Some analysts have credited the village health volunteers with helping to contain the epidemic. They identify possible cases and help isolate those who may be infected, so the virus does not spread.

Founded by the Ministry of Public Health in the early 1980s, the village or community health volunteers have been called the backbone of the Kingdom’s primary care infrastructure. Receiving just a $31-a-month stipend, they are on the front lines, and in this pandemic are risking their own health and wellbeing to serve their fellow Thais.

The World Health Organization said over a decade ago that “there is convincing evidence that the volunteer corps, which it called the backbone of one of the world’s most successful public health systems, has helped curb a slew of infectious diseases, including H.I.V., dengue, and malaria,” according to a New York Times article published in 2011.

“Volunteers are a mix of sentinel and town crier. They watch for outbreaks of diseases and spread warnings about those that are detected. In campaigns against SARS and bird flu, they are credited with making Thailand one of the region’s least affected countries,” the Times reported.

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