After lavish nights of clubbing in Bangkok, a COVID outbreak

Thailand went for months without a confirmed case of local transmission, but the epidemic has now radiated from luxury nightclubs that cater to powerful and wealthy men to the warrens of slums that hug Bangkok’s highways and railroad tracks.

Written by Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono

When the VVIP customers disembarked from their limousines at the Krystal Exclusive Club, young women in tiaras, angel wings and not much else sometimes greeted them.

The VVIP clientele were whisked to the VVIP rooms, with their padded walls and plush sofas. Thai government bigwigs partied at Krystal — one of its mottos is “the luxury entertainment of night light” — as did diplomats, army officers and business owners. For much of the pandemic, coronavirus restrictions did not stop the fun.

But this spring, as go-go dancers shimmied, Krystal and another neighborhood nightclub, Emerald, turned into the epicenter of what is now Thailand’s biggest and deadliest coronavirus surge, according to health ministry officials. Scores of people linked to the clubs have tested positive, including an ambassador and a government minister. (The minister’s staff that he was infected by an aide who frequented Krystal.) Police officers and women who worked at the clubs have been infected, too.

For all the mask-wearing rigor and lockdown obedience displayed by many Thais, the abandon of a privileged few catalyzed Bangkok’s latest coronavirus outbreak, health officials said. The nightclub cluster also highlights the impunity of the rich in a country with one of the largest wealth gaps among major economies.

Thailand went for months without a confirmed case of local transmission, but the epidemic has now radiated from luxury nightclubs that cater to powerful and wealthy men to the warrens of slums that hug Bangkok’s highways and railroad tracks. In these cramped quarters, social distancing is impossible. Infections have also spread to prisons, construction camps and factories.

“The rich people party and the poor people suffer the consequences,” said Sittichat Angkhasittisiri, a neighborhood chairman in Bangkok’s largest slum, Khlong Toey, where the coronavirus has infected hundreds of people.

After recording fewer than 5,000 cases total through November, Thailand racked up more than 5,800 cases on a single day in late May. The total number of infections is now about 175,000. Gone are the days when the World Health Organization praised Thailand for its coronavirus-fighting prowess.

Thailand’s virus surge, happening just as many Western nations approach a semblance of normalcy, is part of a late-breaking wave that has washed over much of the rest of Southeast Asia, where adequate vaccines are largely unavailable. Thailand is counting on local production this summer of the AstraZeneca vaccine by a company controlled by the country’s king. The company has never made vaccines before.

The phuyai, as the gilded elite of Thailand are known, can book overseas tours to get vaccines unavailable at home; one $7,000 jaunt for jabs in Russia is fully booked until July. But the poor struggle. Many must wait for cots at free government field hospitals set up in stadiums or other areas. The rich with mild cases can convalesce at expensive hotels.

“Society is very, very unequal,” said Mutita Thongsopa, a dairy company employee who came to Bangkok to support her family of farmers from Thailand’s northeast. “The phuyai destroyed the COVID situation themselves, and we, the small people, we cannot live.”

On April 27, Mutita’s sister, Supatra Thongsopa, a 40-year-old grocery clerk at a Bangkok mall, arrived at a government testing site at 3 a.m. to secure a spot. She waited all day, then the next day and the next. As she waited, Supatra texted with her sister to complain of fatigue and stomach problems.

She was finally tested May 1. The result came back positive, and she died five days later. Supatra’s boyfriend, who also developed COVID, is still in the hospital.

“People are dying like falling leaves,” Mutita said.

Although a Bangkok court sentenced the managers of Krystal and Emerald to two months in prison for violating a COVID emergency decree, no one else is facing charges so far. The police say they are looking into whether prostitution, illegal in Thailand, may have occurred at the clubs. Representatives of both clubs refused to comment.

“On the Krystal case, it is still under investigation,” said Maj. Gen. Sophon Sarapat, commander of a Bangkok Metropolitan Police division. “We are waiting for the suspects to turn themselves in. We have sent a letter to the owner of the club.”

When cases involve high-profile tycoons or politicians, though, investigations in Thailand have a habit of fizzling. Murder charges do not materialize. Well-connected individuals slip into exile. Thailand’s three waves of coronavirus infection have crested in the shadowy zones where the rich profit from questionable businesses and defy COVID protocols.

The first outbreak, last spring, was traced by virologists to a Bangkok boxing stadium operated by the country’s powerful military, which makes money on sports gambling. The second cluster, late last year, was tracked by health officials to a sweatshop seafood business, which depends on immigration officers turning a blind eye to workers trafficked from neighboring countries. And the third, which has killed about 1,000 people, originated in the nightclubs whose coziness with law enforcement is an open secret.

“In Thai culture, we can smile and lie at the same time,” said Chuwit Kamolvisit, an anti-corruption campaigner and former member of Parliament. “Maybe to survive in politics, that is OK. But when it’s COVID, this is too dangerous.”

In another Khlong Toey community, about 10% of residents have tested positive for the virus. Neighborhood officials were forced to isolate the infected behind sheets of plastic at the back of an outdoor community center.

After suiting up in a plastic raincoat and plastic glasses to deliver water to a new batch of COVID patients, Mariam Pomdee, a community leader, handed out donated meals to residents whose food supplies were waning. With the virus spreading through Khlong Toey’s narrow alleys, employers have been shunning its residents.

Thailand has yet to fully start nationwide mass vaccinations, and less than 2% of the population is fully inoculated. A few wealthy Bangkok residents have boasted on social media about buying vaccination cards from the city’s most desperate residents.

“The rich who are already privileged are stepping on the poor,” Mariam said. “They believe their money can buy anything.”

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