With 3,015 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of May 11th, Thailand has done an admirable job in limiting the human impact of the deadly virus. As the country begins to reopen, it must continue to be diligent in keeping COVID at bay, avoiding a second wave, and helping individuals adjust to the “new normal.” Success depends on each individual and a concerted effort from doctors, public health officials, and government leaders, as well as an often underappreciated but invaluable element of the Thai healthcare system – community health volunteers.
Despite the positive response to date, Thailand is not out of the woods yet. It still needs to expand testing and increase the supply of critical medical equipment, such as ventilators. At its current capacity, Thailand must keep the number of daily new infections under 30 or risk overloading intensive care units (ICU), according to Dr. Boon Vanasin, chairperson of Thonburi Healthcare Group (THG), a key partner on Kenan’s NextGen Aging initiative.
Health volunteers will play an essential role during the reopening period because of their unique ability to reach high-risk community members, notably the elderly and those suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and act as an intermediary between vulnerable individuals and the formal healthcare system.
It’s important to remember that COVID-19 is a collective problem, and so we need to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare and life-saving knowledge – health volunteers make that happen. For example, volunteers can monitor hard-to-reach individuals in self-quarantine and educate community members on sound health practices like wearing masks and washing hands properly. Moreover, because they are members of the community themselves, they have built-in trust with their neighbors, enabling them to understand the on-the-ground situation and feed valuable information to public health officials. Health volunteers, thus, could prove critical for contact tracing.
Thailand has more than one million health volunteers in its nationwide network, making it an asset to leverage in preventing the spread of the virus and adjusting to life after COVID. Although the network is strong, the volunteers still need training and resources to maximize their ability to help their communities. Kenan has extensive experience working with health volunteers in Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani to support vulnerable elderly community members and knows how effective they are when they receive the proper support.
Shortly after the outbreak, Kenan interviewed 34 health volunteers and ten public health experts to better understand the challenges the volunteers are facing as they respond to COVID. The survey found that volunteers need access to: 1) Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as alcohol jells and high-quality masks to protect themselves when visiting community members; and 2) training on a range of relevant topics, including best practices in combating COVID, digital literacy, financial planning, and mental health.
COVID-19 affects the physical, mental, and financial wellbeing of community members, and these repercussions are likely to extend beyond the health crisis. With the right resources and training, health volunteers can serve as a trustworthy and cost-efficient first layer of care to help disadvantaged community members stay healthy and adapt to the new normal. The response to COVID must be comprehensive, and Thailand would be wise to empower its robust network of health volunteers who are bravely going door-to-door to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable members of society.
By Supaporn Mahaphontrakoon
Manager Technical Team at Kenan Foundation Asia