Migrant health volunteers trained to help the most vulnerable during COVID-19
Filling in the gaps in Thailand’s healthcare system
As the global pandemic continues to affect the world, vulnerable communities, especially migrants, are some of the hardest hit. UNICEF and USAID have been working with Raks Thai Foundation to train 100 migrant health volunteers in Bangkok and nearby provinces, Chiang Mai and Pattani on COVID-19 prevention and protection, vaccine literacy, health case management, and psychological support. After training, these volunteers will aim to share vital information with their migrant community of 4,000 people on how to protect themselves and their children, as well as provide much-needed support during this difficult time.
Chai, 42, is from Myanmar and has spent the past decades living and working in Thailand. His proficiency in the Thai language means he is able to hold a comfortable job as a staff coordinator at a clothing factory in Bangkok. He works six days a week, but for the past few months on Sundays, his usual days off, he has spent countless hours doing volunteer work in Myanmar communities on the outskirts of Bangkok.
In 2020, Chai helped found the Phetkasem Volunteer Group, a collective of Myanmar workers who dedicate their time to support fellow migrants. Since then he has devoted his time and money to reach as many Myanmar migrant workers as possible in Bangkok’s southwestern Petchkasem area, where he is based.
Chai is part of a growing network of migrant health volunteers, who are government-endorsed volunteers filling in the gaps in Thailand’s healthcare system. They are on the frontlines, reaching vulnerable or undocumented groups of migrant workers as part of the fight against COVID-19. Volunteers provide these groups with key health information, such as how to receive healthcare in Thailand and the latest on the government’s COVID-19 measures, along with essentials including face masks and hand sanitizers.
With an extensive network of volunteers (Chai’s group has over 30 volunteers and in the past weeks has seen around a dozen new members), the migrant health volunteers are slowly taking on the tasks of Thai health volunteers, who have found themselves unable to reach a vast number of migrant workers due to language barriers and shortage of staff.
“There are around 2.5 million migrant workers in Thailand,” said Chuvong Seangkong, senior project officer at Raks Thai Foundation, a nonprofit that has helped train migrant health volunteers in the past months. “But if you include family members who follow along, there could be up to four million of them.”
Thailand’s labor sector is heavily reliant on migrant workers. A majority of them are from Myanmar, others from Cambodia and Laos. They mostly work in fisheries, manufacturing, and farming. In Petchkasem and along the Praram II Road, which connects the Thai capital to the southern region, sprawling clothing and seafood processing factories signal that migrant workers are concentrated there.
Thailand’s healthcare system was brought to a point of near collapse in July and August of 2021 as the Delta variant spread rapidly and rendered Chai’s volunteer work in migrant communities, which were hardest hit, indispensable. To help integrate his volunteer work into the wider healthcare system, Raks Thai Foundation, in partnership with UNICEF and USAID, hosted a training session for approximately 70 migrant health volunteers from nine volunteering networks in December 2021 to prepare them for an upcoming training from the Ministry of Public Health in January 2022.
“While the Ministry of Public Health will train them on health-related issues, we talked to them about what’s expected of them as a team and their general tasks,” said Chuvong.
During the training, Chuvong stressed that it was important for migrant health volunteers to share correct and unbiased information to migrant workers, update them on health-related news, inform them on where to receive healthcare services and provide support and coordination.
“During July-August 2021, many migrant workers who were infected with COVID-19 had to wait for help at home because hospitals were overwhelmed. We helped them by contacting healthcare services, bringing oxygen tanks to those with severe symptoms, and providing medicine for those who were quarantined at home,” said Chai.
Following the training by the Ministry of Public Health, which was held for the first time in September 2021, and as COVID-19 cases fell, Chai had more time to plan for how to reach a wider community of migrant workers. One day in December, he and a group of five to six volunteers visited the Myanmar Student Monks Organization, a school funded by Myanmar monks in Thailand that offer free courses, such as English, Thai, computer and fashion design, to migrant workers.
Chai brought hand sanitizers, face masks, and booklets on COVID-19 information in Burmese, supported by UNICEF, to the students there. He also explained to them the correct way to wash their hands and wear face masks.
Pyae Pyae Phyoe, 30, who began volunteering three months ago, said, “I want to help. It’s okay if I don’t get paid doing this. Everybody here is brothers and sisters.”
Chai said that since November, he has helped and encouraged approximately 2,000 migrant workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine. It is easier to convince them than before, when there were fears about vaccine efficacy and health risks. Social media has become the main channel for reaching out to migrant workers, especially those who are undocumented and have not had the vaccine, said Chai.
The vaccine helps protect people from severe illness and hospitalization associated with COVID-19 infection, said Chai. Our work is keeping families and communities safe, he said, and helps avoid over-burdening the healthcare system so hospitals can remain open to care for those most in need. This is why it was important for volunteers to expand their network, reach more people, and continue with their volunteer work, he added.
Employers also played a significant part in the success of the migrant health volunteers’ work, said Chai. Many volunteers were able to take leave from their day jobs if duty called or for training. Many factories were also used as centers for mass COVID-19 testing, he noted.
“We expect to work harder after the New Year because holiday travel could result in a surge in cases,” said Chai. But as long as the volunteers continue their work, “we can fight the pandemic and the Omicron variant.”
In addition to conducting migrant health volunteer trainings, UNICEF and Raks Thai Foundation, with support from USAID, are providing psychological first aid and reaching more than 120 people in migrant communities to address emerging psychological support needs during the pandemic. UNICEF and USAID are also supporting a field hospital in Pattani Province with critical supplies, such as 600 oximeters and 600 handheld infrared thermometers, to help monitor the health of COVID-19 patients. Moreover, 1,800 red garbage bags were delivered to help the field hospital segregate and manage hazardous medical waste.
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