Vietnam is an often overlooked coronavirus success story. While other countries in the ASEAN region and beyond saw their numbers rise, Vietnam was able to ease its lockdown restrictions as early as 23 April. As of today, the country has reported only 325 cases and no deaths related to COVID-19.
At first glance, Vietnam would seem as vulnerable to a larger virus outbreak as other countries around the world. It is well-integrated in the global economy, a hub for trade and a major destination for international tourists. On top of it, it also shares a long border with China and saw the return of a large number of Vietnamese citizens from countries that are most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did Vietnam manage to defy the odds? The short answer: clear communication and active government-citizen cooperation.
No miracle but a resolute stance
The first factor contributing to Vietnam performing well in this crisis is the early response and strategic approach. Already on 27 January, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made it clear that the government accepts economic loss to protect people’s lives and health. The country’s previous experience with SARS in 2003 and awareness of its own limited resources in regard to health care facilities meant that it would impose wide-ranging social distancing measures and movement restrictions early on. Making full use of the central-local government system, it mobilised as many contact tracers as possible to contain the spread of the virus.
A second piece of the puzzle was clear communication and in-time interaction between the state and its citizens. Vietnam did not rely on a sophisticated contact tracing app, as many other countries attempted to, but actually applied a rather low-cost approach to communication. Awareness raising campaigns through loudspeakers, press, social media and other means such as music videos greatly resonated with the Vietnamese public. Citizens were supported and updated with information on the latest developments and medical advisories through websites, hotlines, SMS and other mobile applications. For instance, the handwashing campaign #GhenCovy launched by the Ministry of Health went viral as social media influencers added their own dance moves to the catchy tune of the campaign video.
Solidarity and lessons learned from history
Thirdly, the long and costly Vietnam War, which ended 45 years ago, has taught the people how solidarity can strengthen one nation’s power to overcome huge challenges; COVID-19 being no exception. Indeed, Vietnamese people seem currently more united than ever in this fight against an “invisible enemy”, as the government puts it. People generally display a high level of trust and willingness to follow the guidelines in this exceptional crisis. Especially when it comes to saving people’s life and ensuring public safety, the need to sacrifice one’s own interest for common objectives seems accepted by the majority. Slogans such as “Fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy” or “Staying at home is a patriot act” circulated widely in the media and triggered an active response in the struggle against the virus.
Last but not least, there has been wide acceptance for wearing face masks in public even prior to the pandemic. Larger cities in Vietnam are unfortunately well-known for its bad air quality due to emissions, waste burning and smog. People are thus familiar with wearing masks and other gear to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses and unhealthy exposure. In the context of COVID-19, this good habit – which originally grew out of an unfortunate necessity – appears to have been helpful in preventing people-to-people transmissions.
Opening the way for economic recovery and a “new normal”
For the government, businesses and people it is now time to revive the economy. The bustling traffic in the busy streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is back and domestic tourism is resuming as hotels reopen. Most localities are allowed to organize events with larger groups of people again, including sporting events, festivals and gatherings in public places. Most non-essential services have also resumed operations, except for karaoke bars and nightclubs, following an announcement by the prime minister on 7 May which came as a relief especially for retailers. Restrictions of movement have been lifted as well, with social distancing measures removed on all forms of transport. Schools reopened in the beginning of May and initially experimented with various protection and distancing measures. By now, normal operations have resumed and schools go largely without these measures.
All that said, Vietnam is keeping its guard up and understands all too well that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet. People are still advised to wear face masks and use hand sanitizers. In order to follow the government’s instructions on hygiene and distancing standards, some shop owners will have to improve their old way of doing business or introduce their guests to new rules and formats. For smaller street restaurants, it might be more difficult to implement the new guidelines. This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. Overall though, the Vietnamese people and government, which reacted quickly and early on with bailout packages and new supporting policies, remain optimistic about a post-COVID-19 slow but stable economic recovery.
Tran Hong Hanh has been working with FES Vietnam since 2009, where she is a Programme Coordinator and leading the programs on rule of law, gender and youth.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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