Hanoi’s beer barns have adapted for COVID-19.(Reuters: Kham)
Six months of no COVID-19 deaths
From the beginning of the pandemic, Vietnam’s Government went in fast and hard against the virus.
After its first case was detected in January, flights to and from Wuhan were cancelled.
By late March, the nation’s borders were virtually shut altogether.
Testing, aggressive contact tracing and a mass multi-faceted public health campaign were quickly mobilised.
“Public buy-in was critical for success,” the International Monetary Fund said in June.
The Government used a range of creative means to communicate messaging about symptoms, prevention and testing sites, including via state media outlets, social media, text messages, and famously — a viral song about the importance of handwashing.
In mid-March face masks became mandatory for all people who were outdoors.
Unlike in other parts of the world, there was little resistance to mask-wearing.
“Vietnam is very used to infectious diseases … it’s had many outbreaks of infectious diseases over the past 20 years,” Guy Thwaites, director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, told the ABC.
A strict nationwide lockdown was enforced from April 1 to 22.
“Each citizen is a soldier, each house, hamlet, residential area is a fortress in the fight against the pandemic,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said.
Hundreds of thousands of people, even those with suspected cases of COVID-19, were forced into quarantine at hospitals, state-run facilities and at home.
And case numbers remained low.
The median age of those infected with COVID-19 was around 30 years old, which is why Vietnam went more than six months without a single death.
A whopping 97 per cent of Vietnamese reported to approve of their Government’s response to COVID-19, according to a survey by UK pollster YouGov.
In July, however, the disease saw a mysterious resurgence in Da Nang.
Getting on top of the Da Nang cluster
Vietnam’s first coronavirus death occurred on July 31, when a 70-year-old man succumbed to COVID-19 in Da Nang.
This was just six days after a new cluster broke out at a local hospital.
Cases in the outbreak grew to more than 550 — around half of Vietnam’s total cases since the start of the pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “approximately 98 per cent of cases were either related to major hospitals in Da Nang city or have a history of visiting Da Nang.”
The city was locked down, with heavily restricted travel in and out.
“[Authorities did] all of the simple stuff they did last time, but they did it at scale and they did it rapidly,” Professor Thwaites said.
As with Wuhan’s large-scale community testing, pool sampling was used, whereby the samples of five or six people can be tested together.
If there is a positive result, all samples will be individually tested.
“Whole households went into one sample,” Professor Thwaites said, adding that communities or neighbourhoods with known cases were targeted first.
The WHO reported about a third of the city’s households were tested in Da Nang between September 3 and 10 alone.
“The lockdown was a lot stricter than last time and the response on our street was good, they found a case and quickly locked it down,” Jos Aguiar, an Australian working for a Vietnamese property company in Da Nang, told the ABC.
Ba-Linh Tran, of Bath University, and Robyn Klingler-Vidra, of King’s College London, have been researching how the Vietnamese community has responded to the pandemic.
They told the ABC that Da Nang locals had “donated money, food and essential goods to the city’s largest hospital, which was the epicentre of this second wave”.
“Upon discharge, [one patient] even founded a charity with his friends to produce disinfectant and sanitising booths for hospitals in and around Da Nang,” they said.
Flights into the city resumed in early September.
Days later, swimmers returned to the water as beach closures were lifted.
Softer economic pain than neighbours, human rights costs
“The traffic’s as bad as ever,” said Professor Thwaites said of life in Ho Chi Minh City.
“They have been able to spring back into life quite quickly.
“[But] there hasn’t been a tourist in the country since March 10 or something. That’s had some pretty severe economic consequences, as you’d imagine.
The Prime Minister announced last week that flights between Vietnam and Seoul, Guangzhou, Taipei and Tokyo would resume.
Tourists cannot enter yet, with repatriating Vietnamese and foreigners who are highly-skilled workers or investors given early priority.
Nevertheless, the economic fallout of COVID-19 will not be as punishing for Vietnam as for regional neighbours.
“Vietnam is still being expected to be one of the few countries that will continue to grow in 2020, while the rest of the world is being projected to enter into recession,” according to international consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The Asian Development Bank projects Vietnam’s economy will grow by 1.8 per cent this year, making it one of the only South-East Asian economies not to contract.
The GDP of tourism-dependent Thailand, by contrast, is projected to shrink by 8 per cent.
But some observers say Vietnam’s tough approach has come at another cost.
Observers have expressed concern over further repression of dissenting voices during the pandemic.
The UN reports that hundreds of people have been interrogated over COVID-19 related Facebook posts.
“In its run-up to the Vietnam Communist Party Congress in January 2021, Vietnamese authorities have been tightening repressive policies against dissident and free media,” Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development executive director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu told the ABC.
She said the pandemic had also seen the Vietnamese Government double down on authoritarian tactics justified as public health measures.
“Families and relatives of political prisoners were not permitted to meet and provide them with additional food and medicine,” she said.
Nevertheless, said Mr Tran and Dr Klingler-Vidra, “most of the people took care of themselves, so there has been little sense of being forced to do anything”.