Vietnam's Shaky Truce with Covid-19

Authorities say they’ve beaten the pandemic – for now

By: David Brown

On October 1, the people of Ho Chi Minh City swarmed to barbershops, motorbike repair shops, and noodle soup stalls. After nearly three months of a brutally effective lockdown, Vietnam's government has lifted most restrictions on movement in the nation's largest city and in smaller towns and cities throughout the southern half of the nation.

Barricades and roadblocks have been removed and travel permits done away with, meaning that anyone who's had a Covid-19 jab or has recently recovered from a bout with it is now free to move about, to visit supermarkets and restaurants and even gyms -- but not bars, cinemas, spas or karaoke parlors. Checkpoints at provincial borders remain in place throughout Vietnam's southern region. But even so, the popular mood touches on euphoria.

Michael Tatarski, an HCM City-resident expat who has chronicled the pandemic twice weekly in his popular Vietnam Weekly newsletter, says in a story datelined September 30 that he's "pretty stunned" by the overnight lifting of Directive 16, a draconian edict that since July 9 has kept citizens confined in their homes, dependent on food deliveries coordinated by soldiers.

Vietnam has been on a roller-coaster ride since the pandemic reared its ugly head nineteen months ago. Drawing on lessons it learned in 2005 facing avian flu, a similar but less potent coronavirus, the government instituted a strict contact tracing regime that was enforced by neighborhood-level Party cadre and quarantined all arriving travelers.

These methods worked amazingly well: through May 2021, Vietnam had counted fewer than 3,000 cases and 35 deaths in a population of 98 million. Nearly alone in its region, GDP growth was positive: nearly 3 percent in 2020 and looking better in 2021.

And then, as in many other nations, the exponentially more contagious Delta variant got loose, ripping through high-density neighborhoods and export manufacturing zones in HCM City and neighboring provinces, peaking once in late July, falling back, and reaching a higher peak early in September.

From just a few hundred new cases nationwide each day in early July, by the end of the month the daily increase was 7,000 or more, nearly all in HCM City and surrounding provinces. By the end of September, the cumulative case count was just short of 800,000 and the national death toll over 19,000.

Not without some finger-pointing at officials who, it was said, had failed to line up a supply of vaccines, the government has scrambled to buy or beg whatever is available. It has happily accepted donations from the US and China, South Korea, and Italy. Invoking fraternal ties, Hanoi has bought doses, perhaps at a discount, from Cuba (its Abdala vaccine), Russia (Sputnik V), and China (VeroCell).

On July 22, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Hanoi was in talks with US authorities on domestic production of mRNA vaccines developed in the US. Vietnam is, further, hoping to deploy a home-grown vaccine, NanoCovax, by the end of the year.

As September ended, fewer than one in 10 Vietnamese had received two doses of any vaccine, and about a third of the population had one dose. Still, it had become possible to argue that the tide has been turned in the pandemic-stricken south of the country. Weekly deaths were falling and, it was reported, the "effective reproduction number" of the virus in HCM City has fallen from 5 to 1.03, meaning that enough people were now immunized, either by recovering from infection or by vaccination, that the virus is finding few new hosts.

However – has Vietnam really turned the tide? Alternatively, does 'living with Covid' (the Prime Minister's new mantra) risk another flood of infections, particularly in parts of the nation so far scarcely affected? "We cannot resort to quarantine and lockdown measures forever, as it will cause difficulty for the people and the economy," Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said as September began. "The Covid-19 pandemic is evolving in a complicated and unpredictable manner and may last for a long time."

Arguably, Hanoi first waited too long to arrange purchases of vaccines, hoping that with aggressive contact checking and more social cohesion than most nations, it could keep the coronavirus at bay until a supply glut brought down prices. (Oxfam calculates that the 'real cost' of producing a jab of Pfizer or Moderna's mRNA vaccines is US$ 1.20.)

And now, again arguably, Hanoi may have moved too soon to relax controls and put factories back to work, spooked by a 6 percent third-quarter drop in GDP and a rising chorus of complaints from the foreign-owned companies that dominate the nation's export sector. Whether it's cell phones or high-end sneakers, the Vietnamese know there are plenty of other countries that would like to steal their lunch.

With the Christmas season just a few months off, the thousands of factories in the nation's industrial zones will be ramping up production. Prime Minister Chinh has bravely assured foreign companies that Vietnam will not fail their trust in its ability to combat Covid-19. Perhaps he's right.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

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