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“Captain Condom” turned the tide in Thailand’s war on AIDS and overpopulation

At a time when most Thais avoided discussing safe sex and family planning, Mechai Viravaidya promoted condom use with humor, saving millions of lives.

Concerned that Thailand’s population was growing too quickly, Mechai Viravaidya began promoting condom usage in the early 1970s, when few were willing to broach the subject.

Mechai Viravaidya twice saw Thailand in desperate trouble — first from a ruinous population explosion and then from the AIDS epidemic — and he responded to both crises the same way: with condoms and his own considerable charisma.

Birth control was something Thais neither talked about nor very much practiced in the early 1970s, when the country’s population was growing too rapidly and the average family had five children.

So Mr. Mechai decided to spearhead a nationwide campaign to publicize and demystify contraceptives.

“It wasn’t a job for intelligent people, respectable people, aristocratic people,” he said in a June interview.

Mr. Mechai, now 81, is in fact all of these, the foreign-educated son of two doctors, the husband of a former private secretary to the king and, over the years, a government minister, organizational leader and senator.

His goal with the family-planning campaign, he said, was to make condoms just one more item shoppers picked up in the market. To pull that off, he knew it would help to lend condoms positive associations, something that made people smile.

“If I can accomplish that by blowing up condoms or filling them with water,” he said, “then fine, I’ll do it.”

Mr. Mechai was speaking not far from the Bangkok offices of the Population and Community Development Association, the organization he founded nearly 50 years ago to fight poverty in Thailand, with family planning at its center.

He toured the country, village to village, with an endless array of publicity stunts that linked condoms with fun. Filling them up with water past the point of breaking was a staple.

“Who can blow up the biggest condom?” he would call out to the crowds. “Who can make it burst!”

He opened what he called family-planning “supermarkets” at bus stations to distribute contraceptives and persuaded Buddhist monks to bless condoms, distributing videos of the ceremonies. To educate younger Thais, he produced a safe-sex English alphabet that included letters like B for birth control, C for condom and V for vasectomy.

In addition to the spectacle, he mobilized and trained a network of 350,000 teachers and 12,000 village community leaders.

He didn’t limit his family-planning efforts only to condoms. In Bangkok, he offered mass free vasectomies on a parade ground near the palace to celebrate the king’s birthday.

The Fight Against H.I.V.

An estimated 40 million people are living with H.I.V. worldwide. About 10 million of them do not have access to treatment.

Before Covid-19, the world had been making strides against global illnesses like H.I.V. The covid pandemic has changed that for the worse.

Mr.Mechai carries on. Some have found Mr. Mechai’s efforts to combat HIV with condoms offensive, or at least insufficiently decorous. A newspaper columnist, trying to formulate an insult, suggested that people start calling condoms “mechais.”

The idea caught on, and Mr. Mechai framed a copy of the article to hang on his wall.

Credit The New York Times

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