Living Without A Safety Net

There was a news story that caused me to draw me up short. It concerned a woman who had tried to steal from a donation box at Wat Kasattrathirat Worawihan in Ayutthaya. It’s a temple I know well; I used regularly to drive through it on the way to a favourite riverside restaurant. The shock, however, wasn’t so much the crime, but the woman’s circumstances. Her husband had left her. She had lost her job due to the flooding. And she was seven months pregnant – so no one would employ her and she had looming medical bills. She also has a ten year old son to look after.

It made me think of the old woman in a cheap polyester dress who used to scavenge through the dustbins at my moobaan in Ayutthaya. It made me think of the mentally ill man, skin grained black with dirt with long, matted hair, who wanders along Sukhumwit Road wearing home-made trousers – nothing more than a couple of rubber flaps tied together – with his behind hanging out. It made me think of the couple, clad in rags, who sat outside 7-eleven begging day in, day out.

There is no state provision here to care for the most desperately needy in society. If you don’t have family to fall back on. If you can’t root your way through garbage to find plastic bottles and paper to sell. If you have nothing, then robbing a donation box might be your only option.

The woman was caught red-handed. The temple’s abbot, with true Buddhist compassion, decided to let her go free.

But still, like the poorest and most vulnerable in society, she’s still living without any safety net.

***

It’s not only Thais who can end up in dire straights. There are at least two westerners living on the streets of Bangkok. One is clearly mentally ill and has long, rambling conversations with himself. The other lives under a pedestrian overpass, though somehow manages to scrape enough money together for beer and cigarettes. And there’s an elderly gentleman who has senile dementia. His wife and family have found his increasingly cantankerous attitude unbearable and have abandoned him. He lives alone in an apartment, unable to care for himself.

Needless to say, the embassies of the countries these people are nationals of have done nothing to help.

***

Coming from Europe, where everyone has a right to be looked after, from cradle to grave, I find the lack of any social support rather shocking; there it’s a given that you’ll have free access to medical treatment, free education and some sort of state-provided income if jobless. Surely the way a society looks after its weakest and most vulnerable is its true measure. Perhaps if I’d been born American I’d have a different viewpoint, given that in the world’s richest country it’s still possible for people to die for lack of access to medical treatment and millions go to bed hungry*, a place where 38% of Negro children and 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty**. Still, you wouldn’t want the obscenely wealthy there to pay a little more in taxes to help the poorest and most desperate in society. That would be socialism.

* In 2010 14.5% of Americans were food-insecure at some time during the year. Source: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR125/
** Source: http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/

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