Keeping Up With the Coronavirus: Lessons from Vietnam

Vietnam is a country known for many things: Mad motorbike traffic, a single-party communist government, a violent war, beautiful scenery, delicious food, and friendly people. Now, successfully dealing with the coronavirus pandemic that brought even the wealthiest countries in the world to their knees can be added to that list.

As of July 21st, Vietnam’s health ministry has recorded 396 confirmed coronavirus cases of which 90% had recovered and none had died. The country has recorded no community transmission for three months. In such a tightly-packed country with a population close to 100 million, that is beyond impressive. So how did this happen?

One key aspect is that the government recognised the severity of the threat early on. Its experience with SARS in 2003 no doubt helped. On January 23rd, the first cases were recorded and on February 1st, most flights to China and Taiwan were suspended. The 1300km border with its northern neighbour was closed days later. In March, all international flights were cancelled and by April 1st, the country was placed under a full lockdown

The government then began to quarantine tens of thousands and closed all schools. Quarantine was compulsory for all foreign arrivals, who were placed in free (if basic) isolated accommodation for 14 days. At one point it had the highest test-per-confirmed-case ratio in the world. Unlike most countries, Vietnam did not wait for the crisis to hit before taking drastic action.

Perhaps more significantly, there was a strong focus on regular and consistent communication about the virus itself and the government’s response – a factor that was severely lacking in some Western countries. 

As early as December 2019, there were news reports on government websites as well as state-owned news outlets of a strange new illness in China. Early reports already stressed that the government was monitoring the border to China closely and that the disease bore similarities to the SARS outbreak. As time went by, these articles increased rapidly in number and filtered through to social media, where they reached wider swathes of Vietnam’s young and tech-savvy population. 

As well as digital modes of communication, the more traditional community loudspeaker was employed to spread the word about the pandemic. In particular in rural areas, these loudspeaker systems, first used during the Vietnam War, informed communities of the threat of the virus and preventative measures they should take. Other public awareness campaigns included handwashing songs (as featured on Last Week Tonight), Public Service Announcements and propagandistic art

In short, through these diverse channels of communication, the government impressed upon the general public the severity of the public health crisis as well as how it’s spread could be contained – ensuring high degrees of trust and compliance. Without that, its fragile health system that would have been quickly overwhelmed by a severe outbreak, spelling disaster.

Vietnam’s response holds lessons for countries the world over. Its early recognition of the crisis and quick draconian reaction coupled with regular and consistent communication with the broader public stopped the outbreak in its tracks. Although some argue convincingly that those were only made possible by the single-party government’s iron control over the state, countries such as Taiwan demonstrate they are achievable in democratic systems too. That rare combination should serve as a model for countries dealing with public health crises – present and future. 

However, the crisis is not over. Vietnam is a country dependent on tourism, which is set to reduce in the next year.  The government has attempted to stave off the economic consequences with a $2.5bn support package, “rice ATMs” (automated rice dispensers), and other measures – but the true test for Vietnam’s burgeoning economy is yet to come. 

Nonetheless, Vietnam’s success in crushing the health crisis is remarkable and has the potential to shape the way we view the coastal country. As an emerging economic powerhouse and with burnished coronavirus-beating credentials, Vietnam is here to stay.

Words by Reuben Bharucha

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