By: Ben Quick
On my street, no flags fly. Danang, which lies on the coast halfway between the capital, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City, has been in a state of chaos since August 14, when the local peoples' committee warned residents that a "radical lockdown" was imminent. In the three days preceding the lockdown, throngs of desperate shoppers crowded the aisles of markets, pushing past each other in an attempt to acquire the seven days of food the city had told us we’d need.
Now people are fast running out of food and diapers, clean drinking water, and soap. The lockdown has been extended three times -- once from seven to 10 days, then from 10 to 14, and now we are tentatively scheduled to gradually open beginning September 5. Yesterday my ward – a glorified name for a neighborhood association – underwent its fifth mass Covid test in the past two weeks. Rumors are that the results will determine the future, but everyone here has tested negative at least three times already and nothing has changed. It is hard to know what is true, what is speculation, and what is propaganda.
For much of the first year of the pandemic, Vietnam was held up to the world and to its own citizens as an example of what to do right. The tracking and tracing system was efficient and effective. After an initial six-week lockdown, the country was Covid-free with the exception of a few barracks and hotels where passengers of inbound flights endured a mandatory two-week quarantine. Restaurants were free to serve diners via delivery and takeout. Grab, the largest ride-sharing and food delivery app in Vietnam, was booming.
At the end of May, just three months ago, expectations were high that Da Nang would soon be completely open and the rest of the country would not be far behind. Hotel workers, tour guides, and laid-off baristas oozed optimism.
There was some worrisome news from Ho Chi Minh City, 840 km to the south: an outbreak of Covid-19's Delta variant had quickly filled hospitals there and prompted city leaders to implement Directive 16, Hanoi's discretionary guidance for a lockdown.
On July 10 in Da Nang, however, its beaches reopened at last. Then came news of a cluster of new Covid-19 cases in a district south of the center city. After five days, Da Nang's beaches were closed again. Restrictions on movement became tighter. Public schools closed for the year. Students taking Vietnam’s high school and college entrance exams did so at home.
City peoples’ committees are mostly free to interpret Directive 16 however they want. My neighbors and I feared that Da Nang would follow HCM City's draconian example. Reality turned out to be much worse. As I write, new infections in HCM City are averaging 4000 per day. In Da Nang, one-eighth as populous, new infections are only about 60 daily; approximately a tenth of HCM City's per capita rate. But there are no vaccines in Da Nang. And so, we do not move.
In the country with Southeast Asia’s lowest vaccination rate, Da Nang’s jab numbers trail far behind HCM City, behind Hanoi and, it seems, behind everywhere else. It is as though the Hanoi authorities had hoped Vietnam could track and trace the virus until Covid-19 burned itself out.
On Vietnamese television channels, my neighbors and I have seen the soldiers, chests shiny with sweat, hauling bags of rice from barracks to market. We’ve seen the police captains presenting baskets of noodles and produce to surprised, grateful expats. We’ve seen squads of soldiers pushing shopping carts overflowing with care packages to deliver supplies to grandmothers tearing up with gratitude. We’ve beheld the men in camouflage, a grocery bag on each arm, staring straight ahead, never blinking, just doing their jobs as women and children cheer them on and men watch with awe and envy from doorways in the city's ubiquitous alleys.
It is pure propaganda. My neighbors and I trade theories. Was the reluctance of the government to buy vaccines on the open market a ploy to convince richer countries to donate them? A home-grown vaccine is now in phase III testing. Was Hanoi holding out until an effective home-grown vaccine could be made generally available, and so demonstrate that the country is a true international player? Do leaders believe the waiting is worth the cost? Will somebody give us an answer?
We certainly can’t believe the state media, filled with fluff or blaming the people for problems created by a lack of planning. The supply chain for necessities is broken. Technically, shops are still delivering, but they don’t have the capacity to make a difference. Everything sells out in an hour or less as people wait for more supplies. Most orders have to go through the ward boss, so if you have an inefficient ward government, you are in trouble. If you don’t speak Vietnamese or have somebody to help you, you are in trouble. If you are not "connected" in one way or another, you, my friend, are in trouble.
After 10 days of lockdown, the price gouging started. People could order combo packages of vegetables and meat through the ward, but they take four to five days to deliver. The prices of these combo packages have risen higher and higher. Meat is a luxury that ordinary people struggle to afford. My girlfriend’s family spent days trying – unsuccessfully – to get black market chicken at an affordable price from Quang Nam, the adjoining province. Some of my neighbors are down to making meals of reheated rice and tap water and whatever they might have in their gardens.
Twenty kilometers to the south, in touristy Hoi An, people can order fresh hot pizza, Indian food, Malaysian food, Australian steak, and of course, Vietnamese food. Just as bizarre, among Danang’s 1.2 million people, yesterday there were five Covid-19 community transmissions. So there would seem to be no reason for the entire city to be locked down this tightly. In my ward, there have been four rounds of tests in the past nine days, every single one of them negative.
Most of us are facing real problems with cash right now. We can’t use ATMs because we can’t leave our homes. Nothing is being done about that. People with prescriptions are out of luck unless there's a pharmacy in their ward. Those with serious medical conditions are self-rationing to get through another few days in the hope that something will change. Signs point to some increase in supply chain capacity, but it is impossible to know exactly what the trucks we see on the street are hauling.
Now people in my part of the city have gone from merely tired and angry to desperate and angry. And we are pointing our fingers directly at the local peoples’ committee for making a botch of it.
I can’t walk down the block to give sugar to my neighbor. I must sneak through narrow crawlspaces between homes, hoping the cameras don’t catch me. No evidence is appearing of any kind of a vaccination program here either. People are wondering: when will this end?
Ben Quick teaches writing at the American University in Vietnam