Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 20th December 2017

ARTIWARA Kongmalai, lead singer of the rock band Bodyslam, has captivated Thailand with his 2,191km long distance charity run from the south to the north of the country to raise money for underfunded hospitals.

With over 1,900km complete, the singer looks set to finish the run successfully, raising almost 30 million dollars in the process. However, without a significant increase in government funding, Thailand’s state-run hospitals will continue struggling to provide adequate healthcare services.

Artiwara Kongmalai, or Toon Bodyslam as he is more commonly known, set off on his mammoth charity run from Thailand’s southernmost province, Yala, on Nov 1, surrounded by thousands of local supporters and hundreds of security officials.

Since then, Toon has covered over 1,900km of the 2,191-km journey, and he is expected to reach Mae Sai, Thailand’s northernmost district, on Dec 2 as planned.

Toon’s epic charity run aims to raise funds to modernise and improve conditions at 11 state-run hospitals across Thailand.

The singer’s run has captured the attention of the national media and his journey has been covered on a daily basis by newspapers, television networks and social media. The charity run has also generated huge interest from the general public, who have been donating generously to the cause. Donations have passed the initial THB700 million (US$21.3 million) target with the current total now over THB900 million (US$27.5 million).

Along the way, Toon has drawn huge crowds of well-wishers and he has been besieged by supporters, vying to hand over their donations directly to the singer and grab a quick selfie. Despite being inundated, and often blocked, by supporters, Toon has been remarkably patient and good-natured, smiling, taking photos and taking time to greet the sick, the elderly and children who have turned out to cheer him on.

In Songkhla province, Toon heard an elderly woman, confined to her hospital bed, desperately wanted to pass her donation to the singer, so he took a detour to visit her in hospital. In Nakorn Si Thammarat, a local wealthy businessman donated THB10 for every person in the province – THB16 million (US$488,000) in total.

While in Surat Thani, Toon interrupted his run to take part in a concert at Thepmitr Suksa School, joining the school band to perform in front of 4,000 students and teachers. The singer’s efforts have also been applauded by British marathon runner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Mo Farah, who offered support via Instagram.

While in Bangkok, Toon made time to meet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who joined hands with the singer, thanked him for his support and spoke briefly about the challenges of healthcare funding.

Despite all the publicity the charity run has generated, there has been very little debate about Thailand’s chronic medical budget crisis and how it can be addressed so that the country’s much needed Universal Healthcare Coverage (UC) can be financially sustainable.

In April, Public Health Minister Dr Piyasakol Sakonsattayatorn announced 18 state-run hospitals were in serious financial trouble. Later that month, a THB5 billion (US$153 million) emergency fund was approved by the Cabinet to temporarily help those hospitals struggling with massive debts, although debts are building up once again.

Public Health Ministry permanent secretary Sopon Mekthon reported healthcare funding shortages had left local administrative organisations with over THB1 billion (US$30.5 million) in unpaid debts, warning these debts would soon double.

The financial shortfall in Thailand’s healthcare system is severe. With the number of elderly people set to increase from 14 percent of the population to 25 percent by 2025, this problem will escalate acutely over the coming years. Given the shortage in healthcare funding, the military-led government has been criticised for its increased spending on defence, including plans to buy three submarines from China.

Since coming to power in the 2014 coup, the military-led government has increased the Defence Ministry’s budget from THB193 billion (US$5.8 billion) in 2014, to THB222.4 billion (US$6.8 billion) for 2018. In April, the Cabinet approved the purchase of three submarines from China, each at a cost of THB13.5 billion (US$390 million). Purchase of the submarines has received strong criticism from the public and rival political parties who question the need for these costly vessels.

When Toon completes his epic charity run on Dec 25, he will have raised around THB1 billion for the 11 state-run hospitals and he must be commended for helping improve the lives of those patients who rely on state-funded healthcare services for essential procedures.

In the long term, the country’s leaders need to prioritise healthcare funding and ensure hospitals are equipped to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

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Daniel is an English Literature graduate from the University of London who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Southeast Asia. Passionate about education, health care, sustainable development, equality and human rights, Daniel is a regular contributor to Asian Correspondent, Ajarn, The Educator and Bangkok Post.

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