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Vietnam emerges from its harsh quarantine without death: how did it do it?

The Asian country suspected from the beginning that its neighbor, China, where the COVID-19 pandemic began, did not provide complete information on the spread of the disease and imposed rigid isolation measures since January.

April 27, 2020
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Hanoi’s Hang Duong shopping street was completely closed for more than two months (Reuters / Kham)

Vietnam began this weekend to lift its quarantine, one of the strictest in the world, but which appears to have contained the advance of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to official data, the Asian country bordering China had just under 300 infections and no deaths.

Although the gathering of crowds of people continues to be banned and the use of masks and social distancing are encouraged, the communist regime allowed some companies to reopen, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

In several provinces, schools will reopen this week.

Since the detection of the first cases last January, only 268 coronavirus infections have been reported, with no deaths. During the last week, no case was reported.

Experts highlight some early decisions Vietnam made: the swift ban on almost all travel from China, the suspension of schools in mid-January, even before any infections were registered, the quarantining of tens of thousands of people, and the use of the extensive Communist Party apparatus to communicate distancing measures and trace contacts of COVID-19 patients.

(Poster warns of COVID-19 on a street in Hanoi.)
The response was made possible by a one-party Leninist system that is often criticized for maintaining secrecy, silencing dissent, and trampling on individual rights, but which has been adept at dealing with health crises since it was the first nation to eradicate the epidemic of SARS almost two decades ago. Clearly, it is not a replicable model in western liberal democracy.

“Only a few countries can control and mobilize resources on this scale,” Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam analyst at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told the Los Angeles Times.  ”In Vietnam they can do it, and partly because of a political system that is designed to respond to such situations. It is not always good, but in a crisis it helps.”

Control measures often led to large numbers of people being isolated due to just a handful of infections.

Last month, more than 300 doctors, police officers, soldiers and civilians were deployed to trace the contacts of a British pilot believed to be the origin of a group of people infected with coronavirus in a bar in Ho Chi Minh city. Authorities closed several businesses and quarantined thousands of people in their apartments.

In recent weeks, as imported infections increased across Asia, Vietnam quarantined tens of thousands of travelers arriving with or without COVID-19 symptoms, at army barracks, university dormitories, and other public facilities.

(A Vietnamese policeman issues a warning during stiff controls on the streets of Hanoi.)
American officials are impressed by Vietnam’s low infection rate. However, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — who have provided assistance with testing, data analysis and contact tracing — say they ”have no indication that those numbers are false,” said Dr. John MacArthur.

Mistrust China
Vietnam’s close and troubled relationship with its neighboring country, China, greatly influenced its response to the outbreak, analysts say, according to the Los Angeles Times . Days after China reported the first death from the virus on January 11 — and before any cases had emerged in Vietnam — the Ministry of Health held a high-level meeting with officials from the United States and the World Health Organization to establish a containment plan.

At the core of Vietnam’s concern was the suspicion that ”the scale of the outbreak was much higher than what China officially reports,” Le Hong Hiep said. Vietnam was correct in its skepticism: the Chinese regime concealed in its initial reports the rapidity with which COVID-19 was expanding and the damage it was already causing in its country.

(People receive donations of rice in front of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi.)
US cybersecurity company FireEye reported that hackers linked to the Vietnamese government had attempted to break into the email accounts of Chinese emergency management officials and authorities in Wuhan starting in January, apparently for more information on the outbreak.

“Vietnam understands China better than other countries,” said Le. ”Because of similar political systems, they know how China works, and they know the risks and disadvantages of such systems. They know that there may be problems in the data coming from China. So when dealing with China, Vietnam is very cautious. “

The Vietnamese strategy
Of course, the number of people subjected to analysis continues to be low (just over 180,000 out of a population of 96 million inhabitants).

But experts consider the trend to be positive, and representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) have repeatedly highlighted the speed with which Hanoi reacted.

From the first days of February, Vietnam suspended all its flights to and from China, and almost closed its 1,300-km long land border with the People’s Republic.

(A fumigator disinfects the chairs of a hostel on a beach in Hanoi, Vietnam. (March 10, 2020))

Schools have not reopened since the end of January, after the Tet commemorations, the Vietnamese New Year.

Agricultural villages with more than 10,000 inhabitants were completely blocked for three weeks, when there were only a dozen confirmed cases of infections in the entire territory.

Later, ”more than 80,000 people were simultaneously quarantined” across the country, in camps held by the army , said Takeshi Kasai, WHO director for the western Pacific region. ”It is the reason why they have been able to keep a small number of infected”.

Along with the relief for having contained the coronavirus, the Vietnamese Government began its own campaign as a benefactor, and last week sent nearly half a million protective suits to the United States for doctors who are at the forefront of fighting the disease. They were personally thanked by President Donald Trump on his Twitter account.

14th May 2020
Clinton Canul Luna
Finca Solana

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