"The government clearly set its priorities right."
Vietnam was initially believed to be at high risk from the coronavirus. The country shares a border with China where the COVID-19 pandemic started. Its Chinese neighbor is also its top trading partner, with a significant 17 percent of its economy dependent on its trade with China. Without the resources of countries with aggressive but costly containment strategies such as South Korea’s mass testing and Taiwan’s digital tracking system, the limited healthcare system of this developing ASEAN economy was thought to be no match for the highly infectious coronavirus disease that threatened its population of 97 million.
But in the weeks that followed, Vietnam defied all expectations. On April 23, after no new COVID-19 cases were reported for seven straight days, it became the first ASEAN nation to ease lockdown measures set to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease, setting a new standard in this war against COVID-19—on how to do more with less.
What did Vietnam do right, where many stronger economies seemed to have failed?
One thing can be ascertained from the start—whatever it lacked in resources in responding to COVID-19, it certainly made up with proactive prevention.
Days after the first death from the virus was reported in China and even before any case surfaced in the country, Vietnam began working on a containment plan intended to create a headway over the virus. It immediately closed its 1,400-km border with China, and suspended nearly all but essential travel with its neighbor. Checkpoints were swiftly installed, quarantine measures implemented, contact tracing protocols ensured for potential infections and local production of medical supplies accelerated. The Vietnamese government did not hesitate to impose restrictions on movement of its citizens, enforce bans on gatherings of more than two people and mete out fines on social media users for spreading misinformation online.
Unlike other nations now struggling to “flatten the curve,” Vietnam did well to stay ahead of the curve by keeping the number of infections low and preventing it from overwhelming the country’s medical capability. With its proactive implementation of quarantine measures, Vietnam successfully kept pressure off its hospitals, and with meticulous and focused tracing, it quickly identified those who had contact with those infected especially those with pre-symptomatic and symptomatic cases.
Vietnam’s aggressive and proactive containment strategy did not disappoint. As of April 26, Vietnam only had 270 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 225 successful recoveries and no fatalities.
Yes, zero fatalities.
As the Philippines braces for another three weeks of Enhanced Community Quarantine, Vietnam’s success is a good model to learn from. Interestingly, our two countries share several socio-economic characteristics—both are developing economies, with almost the same population size. Both countries have also adopted similar response to address to COVID-19—strict quarantine measures have been imposed and social distancing rules have been enforced.
How did, then, Vietnam do better?
In addition to a proactive strategy, the Vietnamese government clearly set its priorities right—first, fast, efficient and affordable mass testing; second, strict and effective quarantine measures; and third, an open and responsive communication platform.
In a month, the Institute of Biotechnology under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology was able to develop its own rapid test kit, which is capable of returning results within two to three hours. More than 30 testing centers were immediately set up all thought the country. Initially, the country was able to produce 3,600 kits per day, and to date, it has a total daily production capacity of 10,000 kits. According to the recent data made available by the Ministry of Health, the country was able to conduct more than 180,067 tests. With 270 confirmed cases, this means 672 tests for every one detected case, which is by far the largest ratio of testing to confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.
On top of travel restrictions, Vietnam strictly imposed a 14-day quarantine for all foreigners and locals traveling from especially COVID-19 epicenters. In addition, the Vietnamese government provided all those under quarantine with shelter, food and medical attention throughout the 14-day quarantine period. Instead of advising those with possible cases of COVID-19 to self-isolate, they were placed under centralized quarantine facilities, preventing them from spreading the infection to their families and friends. In fact, patients were required to install an app called SmartCity on their phones, which raises an alarm and sends notifications to the authorities if they are more 20 to 30 meters away from their quarantine areas.
Unusual for a country with a socialist political system, often criticized for its lack of transparency, Vietnam made sure that responsive communications system was in place to provide accurate and timely information about the COVID-19 situation. Every new case was reported on the online portal of the Ministry of Health and immediately communicated on the media outlets. The government also introduced a mobile app dubbed, NCOVI, which allowed users to submit their daily health status and travel information, know the hotspots where new COVID-19 cases were reported and get updated information about the coronavirus disease. With this extensive reporting and public service announcements, most people are generally well-informed about what COVID-19 is and what preventive measures they can take.
There is one more indispensable criteria for Vietnam’s success—the people’s strong sense of civic duty and patriotism, which the government successfully harnessed in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, compared to other ASEAN countries, the bailout package approved by the Vietnamese government amounted only to a relatively modest 62 trillion Vietnamese dong (equivalent to 3.7 billion US dollars), of which every Vietnamese worker with a suspended work contact will receive only about 1.8 million dong a month (equivalent to less than four thousand Philippine pesos). This nowhere near the P5,000 to P8,000 social amelioration released by the Philippine government to the country’s poorest of the poor families, or Thailand’s monthly support of 5,000 baht for those who have lost their jobs or Singapore’s 600 dollar handout to every adult during the pandemic. This sense of civic duty and social discipline has helped keep the people optimistic enough to weather the temporary financial pain and social restrictions caused by the outbreak.
Now, with the lifting of lockdown restrictions, the Vietnamese government has its eyes set on restarting the economy. All activities, including non-essential business and services, are allowed to return to normal on the condition they follow proper infection control measures. It is also preparing to welcome and place in quarantine thousands of Vietnamese citizens returning from overseas—whether they showed COVID-19 symptoms or not—many of them workers from China. In order to dampen the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, several incentives have been planned such as tax breaks and delayed tax payments up to five months for businesses impacted by the crisis.
But, despite its success, the fight against COVID-19 in Vietnam is far from over. Full social distancing measures will continue to be observed in parts of the capital city of Hanoi until April 30. While public transportation and even domestic flights are expected to resume by next week, people are expected to continue observing social distancing rules and wearing of masks in public will remain mandatory. Public gatherings of more than 20 persons will remain restricted and schools will remain closed for several more weeks.
With many parts of the world still infected, Vietnam is not taking chances and its government is too cautious to call it a success story too soon.