Vietnam’s Evolving Strategy for Surviving COVID-19

Despite a quick response during their initial outbreak, Vietnam could not avoid a second outbreak and the need to take more aggressive measures.
Part of the Mekong Policy Project
Southeast Asia

Despite an extensive land border and deep trade and commercial links with China, Vietnam has, as of March 26, recorded only 153 cases of COVID-19 (of which 136 are active cases) and has suffered no fatalities. These figures are among the best in ASEAN and are due in no small part to quick action and planning by the central government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his COVID-19 Steering Committee lead, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Acting Health Minister Vu Duc Dam.

Vietnam moved quickly during the first stage of the outbreak in late January to isolate the infected and their close contacts, and to restrict travel from China and other areas impacted by the virus. By mid-February, despite concerns of a widespread outbreak, Vietnamese health authorities had managed to limit the spread to 16 individuals – all of whom eventually recovered.

Trouble reemerged in March, just as Vietnam was preparing to declare itself COVID-free, when a young woman who had traveled through Italy and the UK was diagnosed as the country’s 17th case several days after returning to Hanoi. Vietnamese authorities again took quick action, identifying and isolating the close contacts of the woman who would come to be known as “N17,” and locking down a city block in the Truc Bach neighborhood where she resided. However, the next day, an additional new case was found – a young Vietnamese man, dubbed “N18,” who had visited Daegu, the epicenter of South Korea’s outbreak. In the days that followed, additional cases tied to N17 and N18 emerged, and by the end of the week, Vietnam had confirmed a total of 41 new cases as part of this second wave.  

The emergence of these new “imported” cases sparked a second outbreak cycle that has threatened to undo the success of Vietnam’s early efforts. In response, Hanoi has adopted new, more aggressive measures to track and prevent spread of the disease within the country, while at the same time slowly closing off its borders to new arrivals. Among other things, the government has suspended visa issuance and entry to the vast majority of foreigners, advised elderly citizens to avoid public places and close contact with others, and recommended that all non-essential businesses close and all large gatherings be cancelled.

The government is also spearheading a massive containment effort. Prime Minister Phuc has ordered that all arrivals to the country be placed in quarantine zones and required those who have arrived since March 8 to undergo a medical evaluation. Currently, the country has over 21,000 individuals in “concentrated quarantine sites,” while some 30,000 others remain under self-isolation orders. Conditions inside the quarantine sites are spartan, but those isolated there have generally reported good treatment and an appreciation for the efforts of the Vietnamese medical staff. Anecdotally, there appears to be strong support for the government’s measures to date, even as DPM Dam recently acknowledged a likely increase in infections, and inevitably, deaths among Vietnamese patients, before the disease is finally conquered.

Vietnam will face several distinct medical and economic challenges in the weeks and months ahead. While its healthcare system and medical teams have performed admirably to date, there are concerns that a rapid expansion of cases could potentially overwhelm the country’s health services, and the government is taking steps to quickly ramp up production of additional equipment and supplies. In a similar vein, Vietnam’s preferred strategy of identifying and quarantining potential cases will soon come under stress as quarantine facilities begin to fill – a situation that is already becoming problematic in Ho Chi Minh City. Although many Vietnamese have been cooperative in complying with self-isolation requests, it may be difficult to carry this out on a country-wide basis over an extended period should concentrated quarantine zones reach capacity. Economically, Vietnam will hope to make it through this second wave of cases without resorting to drastic measures that would undermine its booming manufacturing sector. It has so far avoided issuing rules or regulations that would shutter its factories, even as a ban on foreign arrivals may further strain its already stretched labor supply. In the short term, the government fully anticipates a significant drop in growth from the immediate slowdown related steep declines in consumer spending and a virtual shutdown of the Vietnam’s tourism sector. It is also conscious of the fact that global demand may take many months to recover, even as major trading partners China, Japan, and South Korea slowly return to work and a sense of semi-normalcy. Hanoi will be hoping that its proactive and collective response will be enough to help it quickly overcome the immediate public health threats posed by COVID so that it can quickly get back to work and help lead the regional economic recovery.

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