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In Thailand, Aerospace Engineers Turn Their Skills to COVID-19

A screenshot of the site shows central Bangkok. The red circles denote people asking for help and waiting. The green circles denote those who have asked for help and are getting it.
A screenshot of the site shows central Bangkok. The red circles denote people asking for help and waiting. The green circles denote those who have asked for help and are getting it.

In Thailand, a team of aerospace engineers is using the high-tech skills they honed programming planes and satellites to run a simple but effective mapping website helping everyday volunteers reach those with COVID-19 who are falling through the cracks of a struggling public health care system.

Since going live in mid-July, has seen well over 10,000 households sign on, seeking assistance for everything from food to oxygen to an urgent ride to the hospital, most of them in the capital, Bangkok. About the same number of volunteers have signed up to help them.

“Jitasa” ties together the Thai words for “mind” and “volunteer.”

“In Thai it means … people who want to volunteer to do good deeds,” said Wasanchai Vongsantivanich, one of the lead developers.

He was surprised by how quickly the site took off. It got a big boost after someone shared the link with a popular local Facebook influencer who passed it on to his millions of followers.

“When it went widespread, people started to make use of this and a lot of volunteers subscribed by themselves [to] help each other, and that was fantastic and a wonderful thing that we see from the platform,” Wasanchai said.

The engineers’ efforts are part of an outpouring of help from Thais of all stripes who are volunteering their time and singular skills to take some of the load off the public health care system. The medical services are strained by the worst wave of infections to hit the country since the pandemic began.

Every day brings tens of thousands of new cases and hundreds of more deaths. Intensive care units in Bangkok are filling up, forcing some Thais to spend days hunting for a free hospital bed and the worst off to die at home before they find one.

'People helping people'

Volunteers have played a vital role in meeting some of the shortfalls, said Pichit Siriwan, deputy director of relief and community health at the Thai Red Cross Society.

“They’re now very important. We need the volunteers’ help fighting against COVID-19 in Bangkok because of the rise in infections. Now the daily infection in the country is almost 20,000 cases ... and almost half of them are in Bangkok,” he said, leaving hospitals in and around the city “overwhelmed.”

Pichit said the Thai Red Cross Society relies on thousands of volunteers itself, and that some of them have been using to find people with COVID-19 in need.

Wasanchai said the idea for site started with a backlog at crematoria burning the bodies of the newly dead, as per Buddhist tradition. A local volunteer group asked him and his colleagues to brainstorm ways to help families find available time slots.

By early July, so many people were dying of COVID-19 in the greater Bangkok area that the Buddhist temples with crematoria equipped to handle infected bodies safely were struggling to keep up. A colleague of Wasanchai’s who had just lost his grandmother to the virus had to call 19 temples before finding one that could take her.

Once the team came up with the idea of an interactive map of Thailand drawing on crowdsourced data to show people which temples had spare capacity, it was an easily leap to add community isolation centers with free beds, shops ready to fill oxygen tanks and more.

Just as helpful is the site’s ability to quickly connect the sick with people who want to help others. Anyone suffering from COVID-19 can sign in with a phone number, pin their location to the map, and post a note explaining their symptoms and what they need. Anyone who wants to help can sign on with their own phone number and contact them directly.

Those asking for assistance show up on the map as a bright red circle that grows bigger the longer they’ve been waiting. Their circle turns green when they start getting help, goes to gray once their needs have been met, then vanishes after a few days.

“Everyone can see the map, and they see their community and the area around them. Anyone around them who needs help, they just volunteer. If they think they can help [those] people, that household, they just contact and help,” Wasanchai said. “That is the simple idea — people helping people.”

Turning red to green

Sonskuln Thaomohr, who handles company registration records for the Commerce Ministry by day, has taken to with a passion.

Since coming across the site last month, he says he has responded to dozens of posts asking for help — taking blood oxygen level readings, dropping off food bundles to those self-isolating or helping seniors tap into public services by guiding them through online registration forms. Lately he has seen an increase in posts requesting anti-viral medicine.

“If I could do something to help the situation, I really want to do it,” said Sonskuln, whose close friend lost his mother to COVID-19 and blamed himself for having accidentally passed the virus on to her.

“I’m so sad for him, and that affects me personally because I don’t want any other of my friends or others to tell the sad story and blame themselves like that again,” he said.

Sonskuln likes that the site also lets volunteers communicate with one another and coordinate their efforts. But even then, they can sometimes be too late.

“We call it super red, which is the triage level,” he said. “That means they are in emergency state [and] need paramedic attention and … transfer to hospital ASAP. Those people are waiting inside their house and, to be honest, they are not in good shape at all. We have seen people dying — me too — laying on the floor.”

With other volunteer groups and even some government agencies signing in to to respond to posts for help, Wasanchai said, most of Bangkok’s red circles are turning green. Most of those on the site still waiting for help are now to the south and southeast of the capital.

After climbing steadily for more than four months, new daily infection numbers for the country have also started to level off and dip a bit in the past two weeks, convincing the government to start easing lockdown rules that have crippled the economy.

But Pichit, at Thai Red Cross Society, warned that the latest trend could be an artifact of less testing and said infection numbers were still rising in some provinces in the south and northeast of Thailand, so that health care professionals and volunteers alike would have to stay vigilant.

“The more you test, the more you find, so we still need to be aware that this decrease in number may be due to decreased tests,” he said. “So, we should keep an eye on it.”