Thai exchange students share frustrations from the Covid-19 pandemic

High school clubs, Easter, proms and graduation are some things Thai exchange students in America would look forward to under normal circumstances, but this year, these were curtailed amidst uncertainties and government restrictions.

Nattha, Kornklaow Kijjanont and Nawaporn Poomtanapaisarn participated in high school exchange programmes in the United States. Before their academic year ended, Covid-19 reached the States, and there were consequences.

Nattha: “There were many people who didn’t know the whole truth, but brought it up.”

18-year-old Nattha, from Nakhon Pathom, went on her exchange year to La Feria High School in La Feria, Texas. She got on a flight back to Thailand on 1 April and arrived on 3 April with 157 other passengers after the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) put out an announcement that all arriving passengers would be subjected to a 14-day state quarantine. The announcement also stated that the restriction would include those who departed the country of origin before it was imposed.

The spread of Covid-19 had reached her host town of Harlingen, Texas, at the beginning of February and got worse during her spring break in mid-March, though Nattha said people did not take it seriously, as they thought it was only a type of flu.

“My host dad and mom kept telling me that I don’t have to wear [a mask], those who are wearing one are just those who are already infected,” Nattha said.

Nattha said her agency in Thailand asked her if she wanted to come back but left it up to her to decide because it anticipated the possibility of staying since her town was small and houses were already distanced. After Nattha’s school closed and moved classes online, she decided to travel back home as her family was worried about her.

“Everything happened very quickly,” Nattha said. “I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to each of my friends at all.”

As the CAAT restrictions required Thai citizens to obtain a Fit-to-Fly Health Certificate and a certifying letter from a Thai Embassy in the country of departure, Nattha had to spend almost $200 to get the required documents without any help from her insurance company.

When Nattha arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport on 3 April along with 157 other passengers, she said all passengers had their passports taken away by the authorities without being told anything and had to wait in the disease control area for about two hours. Then, they were called to get their passports back, proceed through immigration and take their luggage.

It was a process of transferring every passenger to Sattahip for a mandatory 14-day state quarantine, but Nattha wasn’t aware of that, since she was on the plane when the restriction was put in place, until an official announced that there were buses ready to transit them to the quarantine facility.

“I felt like I didn’t know anything. In my mind, I only thought that at that moment I wanted to see my mom and my aunt,” Nattha said. “But when they told that we must go into quarantine, I was like, what? I wouldn’t meet them again for two weeks. I was a bit sad.”

Another concern Nattha had was that she heard they would put many people in a room during quarantine, so she was scared she would get infected by living with those who were already infected but were not showing symptoms.

The passengers then started to question the authorities on why they were not informed about it. Nattha said the adults started to negotiate until an officer released all the passengers and told them to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.

The situation became an incident as many news outlets reported that the passengers had refused and escaped the mandatory state quarantine. It was later reported that they didn’t escape but had been allowed to leave after a video was posted by a passenger on social media of a high-ranking military officer releasing them.

“He released us row by row,” Nattha said. “I didn’t escape.”

On 4 April, the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) called 152 of the passengers (the other six had agreed to state quarantine on 3 April) to report back to the airport to go into state quarantine by 18:00 that day with threats of heavy punishment, citing the Emergency Decree.

Nattha said she was treated by society as if she had done something wrong even though she believed she did not. The worst thing that hit Nattha, she said, was when her and the other 157 passengers’ personal information, including their names, ages, passport numbers, flight numbers and addresses, were released and shared on social media. Nation Weekend reported this on 4 April but later took it down. However, the full list remains on the internet.

Nattha said she and her 16-year-old exchange student friend received a lot of abusive comments like “Why did you come back? You’re a burden on society” and threats like “I’m going to bomb your house” after their personal details were released. Some used their names to look for their social media accounts and attacked them online.

“Back then, I was scared and became depressed for a while,” Nattha said. “But it wasn’t that [bad] for me. There is, I think, another exchange student. She was only 16 years old, I think. She used to be a cheerful person but since she was attacked in the news, and some people insulted her on Facebook and Instagram, she became depressed for weeks.”

Nattha said it was a tough week for her, she felt like she was experiencing depression. She had to shut her phone off for a while just to avoid reading the abusive comments and news.

Despite the abuse Nattha had to face, she and her family were complying with the restrictions. Nattha said a group of police officers came to tell her to report to the airport, but she was then visited by another group of officers who told her not to do so.

One of the police officers who came to Nattha's house (Photo from Nattha)

“They said it was an order from the governor of my province. They said that it’s risky to go, that they will take care of it and that for now I should go into quarantine at a hospital, and then they took me there in a police car. My dad drove after them. They gave me 5 minutes to pack for the hospital,” Nattha said.

Nattha ended up spending 14 days in quarantine at Bang Len Hospital.

The officers who came to Nattha's house. She was told that they were from a local health centre. (Photo from Nattha)

Kornklaow: “I was under a lot of pressure from many sides; it was like I was in the middle of the decision making process.”

While Nattha was on the first flight after the state quarantine restriction was imposed, 17-year-old Kornklaow, from Pathum Thani, was on the last flight before it.

“On the flight I took here, there was no one with symptoms, and it was the last flight where we weren’t sent into quarantine at Sattahip,” Kornklaow said. “I was very lucky.”

Kornklaow spent her exchange year at Scotus Central Catholic High School in Columbus, Nebraska. Kornklaow’s host organization in the U.S. forced her to come back on 28 Feb but her trip was not scheduled until late March. Kornklaow said her trip was cancelled and rescheduled twice.

“At that moment, I started to feel like I wanted to go home because I didn’t want to get cancelled again and again,” Kornklaow said. “I had already accepted it for a while, but the uncertainty confused me as well.”

Originally, Kornklaow was scheduled to depart on 20 March, but this was changed to 28 March due to the cancellation of one of her flights. Then it was again rescheduled to 31 March due to the suspension of an airline by the State of Nebraska.

With her year cut short, Kornklaow said she regretted many things she was looking forward to but did not get a chance to do. Kornklaow did not get a chance to physically hang out with her best friend before she left, as well as a chance to say goodbye to her favourite teacher.

“There was one teacher who changed me from a person who didn’t like math at all to someone who really liked studying it with her. She had to leave before school’s spring break because he had to go to Mexico with her family,” Kornklaow said. “Back then, I hoped that we would get to meet again after spring break, but the situation made me think that we wouldn’t meet again.”

Kornklaow had been told to travel back on 28 Feb but her first trip was not scheduled until 20 March as she asked her agency for an extension because she wanted to spend her spring break with her friends. Also, Kornklaow said the situation was still at an acceptable level. What Kornklaow did during the time was rehearse a play for her school’s drama club, which was something she regretted the most.

“Acting in a play was something I’ve been really wanting to do since the beginning, but the season before I wasn’t available ,” Kornklaow said

The play was almost ready to put on. Kornklaow spent a lot of time memorizing her lines, but it was cancelled following the closure of her school.

Looking back on what happened, Kornklaow said she learned about the uncertainty of life, the importance of decision-making skills, the importance of being safe and doing what is wanted so there would be no regret afterward.

Nawaporn: “I felt like I couldn’t plan anything. I just had to wait and didn’t know how long.”

When Thailand issued a temporary ban on 3 April to suspend all international flights into the country, 17-year-old Nawaporn, at St. Joseph High School in Victoria, Texas, was one of the Thais who couldn’t travel back until she got on one of the repatriation flights arranged by the Thai Embassy in the US on 14 May.

Nawaporn said she was disappointed as she could only stay at home during her time in Texas instead of getting new experience as she had expected.

The Royal Thai Embassy in Washington DC had been providing updates on its efforts to help people who couldn’t travel back on commercial flights. On 7 April, the Embassy announced on its Facebook page that CAAT allowed flights to Thailand but only with a limited number of passengers. The Embassy also asked Thais who wanted to travel back to complete a survey and emergency registration in order to provide information to the authorities in Thailand to prepare for their arrival.

On April 17-19, the Embassy, together with three Thai Consulates in the US, repatriated over 400 Thais, including exchange students. However, Nawaporn was not on the list of Thais who were sent back.

“It depended on each person. You had to register with the embassy first. Then, it depended on them who they would call,” Nawaporn said. “They began by calling children under 18 and those who needed to go back first”

Nawaporn couldn’t do anything but wait.

A student checking in before boarding a repatriation flight (Source: Royal Thai Embassy, Washington DC)

After more than 2,700 people completed the emergency registration requesting to travel back, the Embassy announced on its Facebook page on 29 April that 580 would be allowed to go back between 10-19 May on four repatriation flights: 80 people would arrive in Bangkok on 10 May, 150 on 12 May, 200 on 16 May and 150 on 19 May. The announcement also noted that the number of people allowed to travel was limited by the total quota of 200 people per day from all over the world and the needs of each individual in terms of health, living conditions and visa expiry situation.

Nawaporn got on a repatriation flight on 14 May and arrived in Bangkok on 16 May. She said she was glad she got to come back although she was scared of getting infected during the trip. All passengers had to pay for the flights out of their own pocket, with fares ranging between $1,800-$2,900 depending on route, according to the announcement from the Embassy.