Land of Covered Smiles: Thais cling to masks long after Covid-19 mandate

By Nattakarn Jeamrugeekul and Hataiphan Tungkananukulchai

Bangkok, Apr 1 (EFE).- Six months after all remaining Covid-19 restrictions were lifted in Thailand – known by its tourist bureau as the “Land of Smiles” – many residents are still choosing to wear face masks.

Thais give various social, health and employment reasons for continuing to use the masks, which were mandatory outdoors between April 2021 and June 2022 at the height of the pandemic in the southeast Asian nation.

“I feel uncomfortable when I see everyone wearing it and I am not. Sometimes they’ll look and even though they don’t say anything, I don’t like being looked at,” says Jiratchaya, a 16-year-old student, who regularly wears a mask to feel “comfortable” and “more protected.”

Even before the pandemic, masks were commonly used in Thailand, especially in the capital, due to seasonal air pollution problems which have returned again this year.

It is common to see Bangkok residents wearing masks while walking outdoors, despite authorities only recommending their use in crowded or poorly ventilated places after the emergency decree and all Covid restrictions ended in October 2022.

This is even more notable on the capital’s often crowded skytrain public transport system, where voice announcements regularly remind commuters that covering one’s nose and mouth is “recommended.”

Mahidol University academic Wonpen Keawpan, who studied the extensive use of masks in Thailand throughout the pandemic, says it is an “interesting” issue on which there are still no studies.

Graphic designer Siwaporn, 36, says she continues to wear them “simply because everyone else does.” Booranin, a 33-year-old lawyer, also says “peer pressure” is one of the main reasons why he is still covering his face.

“It feels strange to get on a train and not have your mask on as everyone wears them,” says Siwaporn, adding that “personally, I don’t want to wear it anymore.”

Other reasons for continued, widespread mask use are the high levels of harmful air pollution in the country during the cooler winter months, partly as a result of annual crop burning, as well as traffic and construction.

In March, the disease control department said that in the first five days of January, more than 1.32 million Thais fell ill from high levels of air pollution.

“I think that the mask is good protection against dust and pollution,” says cleaner Chanpen, 57, adding that “I cough a lot if I don’t wear one.”

Palita, a 32-year-old medical worker, says pollution is the main reason why she – and her young son – both still wear a mask.

“I don’t want him to get sick from the pollution,” she says.

On Mar. 12, the northern city of Chiang Mai topped the list of the world’s most polluted cities, ahead of Lahore, Hanoi and New Delhi, according to the AirVisual monitoring website.

And while severe Covid-19 outbreaks of the past two years may have ended, many remain mindful of staying safe from the virus.

“I sometimes wear a mask when I leave the house, especially when I know I’ll be spending time indoors and with a lot of people. I feel safer that way – in case someone next to me is coughing or sneezing,” says translator Chatchaya, 32, who removes her mask “in the open air.”

That is an option some Thais, such as 54-year-old security guard Soontorn, do not have. Soontorn must continue wearing a mask for work, although he says he doesn’t wear one in his personal life.

Thailand has recorded 4.7 million Covid-19 cases and more than 33,900 deaths since Jan. 3, 2020, according to data from the World Health Organization.

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