As of 30 April, Vietnam has a coronavirus death count of zero and only 270 cases. While the mortality numbers climb into the hundreds of thousands across the world, Vietnam has managed to contain the outbreak of coronavirus through timeliness, aggressive infection control, mass mobilisation of its population and an unprecedented level of openness.
Out of the key factors that contributed to Vietnam’s successful coronavirus response, timeliness was the first. Vietnam acted early and did not hesitate to alert its citizens. On 28 January, when the country recorded only two cases, the government announced that it was planning for a scenario in which thousands of people could contract the virus.
In the following weeks, Vietnam continuously imposed restrictions and issued policies ahead of and sometimes against the WHO’s recommendations, such as a series of international travel bans and the compulsory wearing of face masks. In late January, the WHO was advising against international traffic restrictions – and to this day, it still stands by the recommendation that face masks are not necessary for the general public.
Due to limited treatment infrastructures, the Vietnamese government has focused on mass testing and aggressive contact tracing – a tactic it had employed to fight Sars 17 years ago. Only this time on a larger scale. As of 30 April, Vietnam had conducted 261,004 tests and put tens of thousands of people in isolation.
Testing and contact tracing is based on a four-level principle announced by the health ministry: confirmed Covid-19 patients and their direct contacts (level 1: isolation and treatment in hospitals); close contacts with level 1 (level 2: quarantine facilities); close contacts with level 2 (level 3: self-quarantine at home); and lockdown of the neighbourhood/village/town where the patient lives (level 4).
Adhering to this principle has meant testing a massive number of suspected cases for every new patient. So far, Vietnam has tested nearly 800 people for each new confirmed case, the highest ratio in the world, according to Reuters data. Vietnam was able to make its own WHO-approved test kits and has even exported the kits to Europe and the US.
In real life, this scale of testing is easier said than done. Vietnam has gone to great lengths to locate the virus, even utilising methods that could have been controversial in countries with stricter privacy rights. It publishes a detailed travel history of every new patient on social media and in local newspapers in order to seek people who have been in close contact with them. To increase vigilance, the government has also released a mobile app for people to alert the authority about suspected infections in their area. For all people entering the country, a health declaration is now compulsory, with criminal penalties for false declarations.
Some would claim these measures are intrusive and would doubt their effectiveness if implemented elsewhere. This may be true. Vietnam is a one-party state with decades of experience in mobilising its population through wars, Sars and swine flu outbreaks.
In the early days of the epidemic, the government framed the outbreak as a war. Doctors and nurses were referred to as “soldiers”, and the newly formed National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control was dubbed the “General Headquarters” – a reference back to a military body in existence until 1975.
Not only has the language of war been revived, the military has been central to tackling the outbreak. It has been in charge of coordinating the food, transport and accommodation required to quarantine thousands of people returning home to Vietnam from outbreak zones such as the UK.
As in wartime, almost every sector, including aviation, healthcare and food production, has been mobilised and dedicated to containing the pandemic. Citizens, meanwhile, are encouraged via social media, text messages and TV broadcasts to donate to the nation’s disease prevention funds.
These messages have not been communicated in a rigid militaristic style. Instead, the government has been creative. It updates citizens via regular text messages and has teamed up with two famous pop singers to produce an educational song about the virus, commissioned artists to create posters, and used young, influential figures to broadcast positive messages to those under mandatory quarantine.
These creative messages have resonated with many living in lockdown. Vu Dinh Thai, a 25-year-old Vietnamese graduate student in the UK, spent nearly a month in the government’s quarantine camp. Despite unhygienic water and limited access to the internet, he was grateful for the safety he couldn’t be assured of in the UK. “It’s free and they tried their best,” he told me via text messages, “and who would belittle their country for being poor?”
Vietnam made it clear at the beginning of the pandemic that it wanted to protect its reputation as “a safe country”. Yet by being open with its people, the government has achieved more than just safeguarding its image; it has rebuilt public trust. For the past few years, Vietnam has had to deal with protests over non-transparent handling of environmental disasters such as a mass fish poisoning in 2016, land disputes, and most recently a controversial bill of special economic zones.
The question is whether Vietnam can retain this level of transparency in the aftermath of the crisis. Respecting and being open with the people can only benefit Vietnam.
• Trang Bui is a Vietnamese freelance journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City