Vietnam’s showcase Covid response

Opinion: Vietnam’s success against Covid-19 is remarkable given the lack of material resources. Natasha Hamilton-Hart and Celia Caughy discuss how it was done.

The image shows an older woman wearing a facemask in Sapa, North Vietnam. Photo: iStock
Masked up in the face of Covid-19, a woman in Sapa, North Vietnam. Photo: iStock

Vietnam is one of a select handful of East Asian countries set to register positive economic growth for the year 2020. Of the major regional economies, only China and Taiwan are similarly poised to achieve this feat. The global economy as a whole, in contrast, is predicted to contract by 4.4 percent as the United States, Europe and Australia register their deepest recessions in decades. While much of the world struggles with the health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vietnam has successfully contained the virus, keeping case numbers extraordinarily low and registering only 35 deaths due to the virus as of mid-October.

Vietnam’s success is all the more remarkable given it lacks the material resources available to richer nations. Despite a 1400km border with China and a population of 95 million, Vietnam managed to control the virus by acting early, cohesively and with relatively little disruption. Having experienced the SARS virus outbreak in 2003, Vietnam was quick to react to the news of the outbreak in China. Conscious of the country’s limited clinical resources, it implemented a partial lockdown after the lunar new year, known as Tet, celebrated at the end of January. This meant that schools did not go back immediately after the holiday.

A ministerial taskforce, the National Steering Committee on Covid Prevention and Control, was established early to control the response. Vietnam Airlines suspended flights to and from surrounding countries from February 1 and, soon after, borders were closed to most travellers except returning citizens who had to undergo a 14-day quarantine in government operated facilities. A full lockdown was imposed in April (other for than essential businesses), which resulted in no new local transmissions for three months. Schools began to reopen in May. Apart from a short spike in cases in late July and early August, Vietnam has maintained its record of very low case numbers ever since.

Vietnam used the tactic of quarantining large numbers of people and rigorous contact tracing, with soldiers and police helping to track down those potentially infected. Smartphones were used for government messaging – in a country where nearly everyone has a smartphone – conveying messages that described symptoms and gave advice about testing and precautions, such as using hand sanitiser. Washing hands and staying home became a patriotic duty. A pop song about handwashing went viral. Those spreading misinformation on social media were fined.

Although a developing country, Vietnam has long invested heavily in education, especially in science, IT and technological fields. This commitment yielded clear benefits for the pandemic response, as Vietnamese scientists were able to develop low-cost testing kits early on and these were widely used.

As in New Zealand, the success of Vietnam’s pandemic response required a high degree of social compliance and trust. Although Vietnam’s government does not face a domestic political opposition and is able to exercise power with relatively few constraints, it has not for the most part relied on coercion to implement its pandemic response. Perhaps drawing on its history of collective struggle against foreign adversaries and hardship, Vietnam appears to have been largely united as a country in this war against a new enemy.

Maintaining a high degree of voluntary compliance with restrictions brought the virus under control and has been key to resuming economic activity and education. Initially, the economic consequences were severe. About a third of the adult population lost their jobs or had their work cut back; and large numbers who had been moving into a previously-growing middle class fell back into poverty.

Vietnam is now largely open for business and is slowly resuming commercial international flights with selected destinations. Foreign businesses, particularly large investors from South Korea, are increasing their already-significant investments in Vietnam. The country has benefited from some of the relocation of manufacturing out of China prompted by rising US-China tensions. Taiwan’s Pegatron, one of the world’s largest parts and components manufacturers and a major supplier to Apple, is planning a $1 billion investment in Vietnam.

Vietnam remains outward looking and keen to engage international partners. Its early success in managing the virus put it in a position to donate 550,000 face masks to France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain, 200,000 to the US, and 390,000 to neighbouring Cambodia and 340,000 to Laos as well as some to Japan. They have sold 450,000 hazmat protective suits to the US, earning President Donald Trump's thanks to "our friends in Vietnam" in April. Their factories are producing tens of thousands of face masks and ventilators for home and export.

In July this year, Vietnam and New Zealand announced a strategic partnership. It aims to promote increased ties between the two countries, with highly complementary strengths. Vietnam is a highly educated country where rapid economic growth over the past two decades has expanded its consumer class. Yet as a developing country, wage rates for skilled labour make Vietnam a competitive, stable destination for foreign companies seeking a manufacturing or IT industry location.

New Zealanders who have worked in Vietnam and Vietnamese Kiwis report that the cultures, although different, generally get on well together. Both share an attitude of rolling up their sleeves to get things done, thinking smart and not afraid to take on the rest of the world. Many Vietnamese also share what we like to think of as Kiwi traits of being modest, friendly, accepting, industrious and resourceful.

Professor Natasha Hamilton-Hart is Director of the New Zealand Asia Institute at the Business School; Celia Caughey is a former New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Vietnam and has a longstanding association with the Ba Chieu Home, a charitable organisation in Vietnam.

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Vietnam’s showcase Covid response 20 November 2020.

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