SALADANG, Thailand – Nearly every day, 77-year-old Surin Makradee goes door-to-door in her village in Thailand, visiting every home to check people’s temperatures in a routine repeated in communities across the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I consider people in the village my family. If I don’t educate them, they will not understand the risk of getting infected,” Surin said in her village of Saladang in Ang Thong province, about 90 km (55 miles) north of Bangkok.
She is a member of the Village Health Volunteers, a long-overlooked network of more than 1 million community workers dating back to a Cold War-era hearts-and-minds program.
The volunteers have been praised by the World Health Organization as “unsung heroes” in Thailand’s relatively successful efforts to fight the novel coronavirus.
Thailand was the first country outside China to detect a case of the coronavirus, in January, but it has reported only about 3,000 cases and 58 deaths since then.
“Thailand’s village health volunteers are unsung heroes working to support the prevention, detection and reporting of COVID-19,” said Daniel Kertesz, WHO representative for Thailand, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Apart from the temperature checks, the front-line health volunteers help the government collect daily health information and watch for flare-ups in infections.
Surin, who has been a volunteer for 38 years and does her rounds by motorcycle, said she is also responsible for monitoring people who have returned from other provinces and need to be in quarantine for 14 days.
“I have to educate those in quarantine to eat and live separately from their family members,” she said.
Created in 1977, the Village Health Volunteers were set up as part of government efforts to help rural communities at a time when communist insurgents roamed through many parts of the country.
With basic health training, the volunteers help provide rudimentary care and initial diagnoses in areas that are often a long way from a clinic or hospital.
“They were gatekeepers for people in the community to get to medical treatment, and this was important considering the limited resources of our health system,” said Chatichai Muksong, a historian at Srinakharinwirot University.
He said volunteers helped create greater participation in the health systems in subsequent decades and won praise during previous epidemics like the H5N1 bird flu in the mid-2000s.
Their role, however, had become less prominent over the past 10 years — at least until the coronavirus emerged.
One person under quarantine in Surin’s village, Ticomporn Kingpet, 60, who recently returned home from the resort island of Phuket, said he was impressed with the volunteers’ work.
“They’re like a group of small ants working together. They are giving very good advice to the people,” he said.