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Covid-19 in Vietnam: Holding Our Breath in Wave Four

May 26, 2021

By Nicola Nixon

Over the past three weeks, the government of Vietnam’s various systems for managing the Covid-19 pandemic kicked back into full swing as the number of cases of community transmission rose suddenly and grew quickly. This is our fourth experience of community transmission since the pandemic began, and everyone’s fingers are crossed that it will be managed as well as the last three.

Since March 2020, Vietnam—with a population of 96 million people—has seen only 5,791 cases and 44 deaths. This achievement is remarkable indeed. Exactly one year ago, in an earlier post, I wondered if the pandemic would be well managed, and it has been.

Forklift carrying 1.68 million COVAX vaccines

1.68 million COVAX vaccines arrive in Vietnam, May 2021. (Photo: UNICEF Vietnam)

Looking at the proportional impact, from Worldometers, on May 26 Vietnam currently has 0.4 deaths per million, while Singapore is at 5, Thailand at 12, Australia at 35, and Malaysia at 72. On the number of infections per million, Vietnam is at only 61, while for Singapore that number is 10,509, for Thailand it is 1,971, and for Malaysia it is 16,064. The difference is staggering.

Throughout the past 18 months, over three waves of outbreaks, the Vietnamese government has honed a highly proactive approach to managing the spread of the virus in the community that prioritizes addressing degrees of contact and not simply the presence of symptoms of the illness. Once a case is identified, it is characterized as F0. Anyone who has had direct contact with an F0 becomes an F1 and is quarantined in a government facility—either a military barracks set up for this purpose or a hospital. The next degree of separation, F2, requires self-isolation for two weeks. Late last week, as the number of cases in the community doubled from one day to the next, local sources estimated that some 60,000 people were in government quarantine facilities. At the height of the second community outbreak in July 2020, while repatriation flights were bringing citizens back from overseas, it was estimated that there were some 80,000 in these facilities. The whole system is underpinned by generally reliable and timely data and communications.

Since March 2020, Vietnam—with a population of 96 million people—has seen only 5,791 cases and 44 deaths. This achievement is remarkable indeed.

As cases began to rise on this fourth occasion, a range of social distancing and movement restrictions were progressively put in place. They began with the closing of schools, followed quickly by karaoke bars, massage parlors, and gyms, with restaurants next required to shift to take-out only and public parks and meeting places closed. People are fined for not wearing masks in public, and citizens have been asked to stay home and limit their movements, while most shops and businesses stay open. It is “lockdown lite,” if you will, and despite the sinking feeling that comes with having kids on distance-learning again, the calm and the orderliness of the system engenders confidence.

Watching neighboring countries in the region and those further afield, it seems the Vietnamese public has come to acknowledge that this approach works, and they get on board quickly. On the last occasion, in February, when there was an outbreak of community spread around the Tet New Year holiday, the government got on top of it within a month, with minimal closures and movement restrictions, and everything reopened again in March.

In between those outbreaks, and despite the absence of international tourists coming and going, life for most has continued in a bubble of relative normality throughout the pandemic. Although, like everywhere across Asia, there will be long-term and inequitable impacts from the resulting economic slowdown, particularly on women and the poor and marginalized, Vietnam’s economy has been the least hit and is expected to be the fastest to recover in Southeast Asia. The government’s ability to keep the virus at bay has been the key factor in this success.

Yet despite this accomplishment, Vietnam is well behind schedule on vaccinations. The outgoing government’s wait-and-see approach to the vaccine market seems to have backfired.

Yet despite this accomplishment, Vietnam is well behind schedule on vaccinations, even compared with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Laos and Cambodia are well ahead in their rollout, as are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The outgoing government’s wait-and-see approach to the vaccine market seems to have backfired, with demand now massively outpacing supply globally, and with future production tied up in contracts to wealthy countries. As a lower-middle-income country with persistently high levels of poverty, Vietnam qualifies for COVAX, yet the global facility has struggled to supply poorer nations, and India has now halted vaccine exports due to its own crisis. Vietnam also has its own approval process for vaccines, which means that several aren’t yet approved for use.

In the meantime, four local vaccines are under development, two of which are undergoing human trials. But expectations that at least one locally produced vaccine will be available by September 2021 appear to be overly optimistic.

It is too early to tell what overall direction the daily numbers are heading in. For now, with infections largely concentrated in two northern provinces, the country is hunkering down for what we hope will be just a fourth ripple in an otherwise well-managed crisis. Unfortunately, a definitive end to the crisis through broad access to vaccinations seems still a long way off.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s regional director of governance programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

This post is part of a collaborative series with the DevPolicy Blog, where it previously appeared. The Covid-19 case numbers have been updated.

Related locations: Vietnam
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Covid-19

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