When United States President Donald Trump says the US is leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, people around the world shake their heads in disbelief. In fact, it has been Vietnam ‒ the country that US generals once tried to “bomb into the stone age” ‒ that is quietly leading the world in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of May 12, Vietnam had only 288 cases and zero deaths, despite the fact that it is a poor country with a population of 97.3 million and a 1400km land border with China. It has out-performed countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, which have been touted as examples by world media outlets.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a study of Vietnam's response to the pandemic on April 7. ASPI urged other countries to learn from this intervention, “based on early risk assessment, effective communication and government-citizen cooperation, decisive leadership, accurate information and community solidarity”.
Vietnam's success was also noticed by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank and has since been reported in international publications from across the political spectrum. Detailed reports appeared in The Nation and The Diplomat and even the conservative British journal, The Economist.
‘People, health and life above all’
Tran Dac Loi, who was the vice-chairperson of the Central Commission for External Relations of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 2011–2018, explained to Green Left that the policy of the Vietnamese government and the CPV was to put “people, health and life above all”.
“Under the motto 'Fight the pandemic like fighting against an aggressor', the party and state could mobilise active participation and coordinate joint efforts of the whole political system, including all government agencies, military, police and mass organisations at all levels, in the struggle to combat the pandemic.
“The government's top priority is preventing the spread of the epidemic in the country. Therefore it has been applying rational measures to (partially and then fully) close the borders in conformity with the development of the situation; focusing on checking health and isolating passengers coming from affected countries and regions; tracing contacts with virus-affected patients for testing and necessary isolation.
“Virus-affected patients received special intensive treatment in the best hospitals. People having direct contact with affected patents were isolated in special places for at least two weeks, for monitoring the health situation.
“People having indirect contact with the virus affected were asked to self-isolate at home. Some villages or streets having symptoms of virus spreading were locked down for 2–3 weeks.
“All costs of treatment, testing and isolation were born by the government, including that of foreigners. People in locked-down areas were provided with free food and other essential goods during the whole lockdown period.”
Primary healthcare system
“The public healthcare system at all levels was mobilised effectively to combat the pandemic. The network of local primary healthcare centres played an important role in identifying and tracing the potentially affected cases for prompt treatment and isolation, as well as providing information to the people on the pandemic,” explained Tran.
More than 45 million Vietnamese were lifted out of poverty from 2002–18, but the country still suffers a painful legacy of decades of war and imposed economic underdevelopment. It has had to learn to make do with few resources and its public healthcare system is emblematic of this heroic struggle.
Vietnam’s primary healthcare system is well entrenched in both urban and rural communities, according to several aid and development workers with years of experience in the country, who spoke to Green Left. It reaches even into the most remote villages.
Through effective preventative care and public education, this compensates for a still-stretched hospital system. According to World Bank data, Vietnam has eight physicians per 10,000 people, compared to 18 in China and an OECD average of 29.
This primary healthcare system has been tested and fine-tuned in the process of dealing with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and swine flu in 2009, when the hospital system was put into emergency mode. This prepared Vietnam to deal with COVID-19.
According to the ASPI report: “Between 9 January and 15 March, an average of 127 articles on the topic were published daily in 13 of the most popular online news outlets, leaving little room for rumours and fake news to spread. As a result, Vietnamese generally haven’t viewed COVID-19 as just another seasonal flu, but as a serious illness as menacing as the 2003 SARS outbreak.”
Local hospitals, research institutes and universities created reliable platforms to track COVID-19 quarantine cases, published important clinical findings on the disease and developed low-cost test kits for the virus.
Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram wrote in a May 14 opinion piece for Inter Press Service: “Different ministries have jointly developed an app, reputedly very easy to use, allowing users to: submit health and travel information to get tested; know ‘hotspots’ where new cases have recently been detected; and get up-to-date information regarding ‘best practices’ in Vietnam and the world.
“Vietnam’s response has earned a high level of trust among its citizens. About 62% of Vietnamese surveyed, in the single largest global public opinion study on COVID-19, think the Government is doing ‘right’, compared to the global average of around 40%.”
Tran retired in 2018 but he is still actively involved in international solidarity work in a voluntary capacity. He serves as Chair of the Consultative Commission on External Affairs for the Vietnam Fatherland Front and is the Standing Vice-President of the Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation, which is affiliated to the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations (VUFO).
He is very proud of his country's assistance to other nations battling COVID-19.
“Vietnam's motivation in providing assistance to other countries is based on the understanding that the pandemic is a serious threat and a disaster to the whole of humanity, and results from Vietnam's position as a responsible member of the international community as well as from its humanitarian tradition.
“Vietnam's assistance comes not only from the government but also from Vietnam Red Cross and other peoples’ organisations, particularly from Vietnam's friendship and solidarity organisations with other countries.
“Vietnam has rendered assistance to neighbouring countries (China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines) as well as to some of the most affected countries such as the US, Italy, Spain, UK, France and Russia.
“Vietnam is also helping countries such as India and Japan, that are facing growing threats from the pandemic.”
George Black reported in The Nation on April 24 that Vietnam has “shipped 450,000 hazmat suits, bought and paid for, to the United States from a local DuPont plant.
“It has had enough excess capacity to send 550,000 surgical masks to the worst-affected countries in Europe, and another 730,000 to its neighbours, Laos and Cambodia.
“With the apparel industry one of the mainstays of its economy, Vietnam has now geared up its domestic production capacity to 7 million new fabric masks and 5.72 million surgical masks a day, and Vietnam’s biggest publicly traded corporation, Vingroup, has retooled automotive and smartphone factories with a promise to produce 55,000 ventilators a month.”
Opening up, still on high alert
As at May 12, “there have been no new locally-infected cases registered in Vietnam during the past 25 days,” said Tran. “This situation has enabled Vietnam to gradually resume almost all activities in the society (except bars, karaoke and mass gatherings).
“But, Vietnam is still on high alert since the pandemic still spreads in many countries in the world. Therefore, Vietnam continues health checking and two-week isolation for all comers from abroad, does not yet permit regular flights from virus-affected countries [and] is going to resume air connections only with selected places.
“At the same time, Vietnam maintains necessary preventive measures in all activities in the country, such as temperature-checking, hand-washing and wearing masks in public spaces and transportation. Vietnam also continues to prepare itself to effectively combat any re-emergence of the pandemic, if necessary.”