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Thai Volunteers Aid COVID Patients     07/25 08:25


   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 

   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 

   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.

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