Vietnam leaving nobody behind

08:00 | 23/03/2020
It is 9am on Wednesday morning, and I am putting on my face mask to go out and get a haircut as well as run some other errands. Down the road is a small shop for students – at both sides of the entrance, a sign reminds customers to wear a face mask and disinfect their hands before entering, something that many public places in Vietnam currently demand from their visitors.
vietnam leaving nobody behind
Overseas Vietnamese make their way back to the homeland, Photo: Hoang Manh Thang

Apart from this, and the fact that I do not have to wait in a queue, everything is as usual – astounding considering how many countries currently have issued curfews and restricted public life dramatically. Meanwhile, life in Vietnam amid the current health crisis is still relatively normal.

Like many shops, cafes, and other businesses in Bach Khoa, one of the largest university areas in Hanoi, student shop has seen better times. Most students – and that means most people in the area – have gone to their home towns and villages outside of Hanoi. For more than five weeks now, there has virtually not been any school, one of many precautions that the Vietnamese government has taken from the beginning to prevent the spread of the epidemic.

Six weeks have passed since the first person infected with the novel coronavirus came to Vietnam. Now, around 80 people have been infected and nobody has yet died, with 17 patients already recovered fully.

It came as a small shock to everyone when the country saw the 17th patient after 22 days without any new infections. However, after a few days things calmed down again and while the world is struggling to cope with the pandemic, Vietnam continues to stay relatively cool and seems to be ahead of everything.

Why is that? How is it possible that a country that borders China, the previous epicentre of the outbreak, has nearly 100 million inhabitants, and is seen as a developing country by most other nations, can still control the outbreak much better than most developed countries?

A few weeks ago I spoke to Vietnamese colleagues and friends about the ongoing crisis. Most of them said something along the lines of, “Well, your country (Germany) will probably handle the outbreak well, as they have got a decent healthcare system”.

This could not be further from the truth, in my opinion – at least not compared to Vietnam. While many countries in the so-called developed part of the world have somehow waited just long enough for the outbreak to become a serious problem, Vietnam took absolutely no chances.

First of all, everyone here took the danger imposed by the virus very seriously, but nobody panicked and bought stacks of toilet paper. Since the beginning, the government has put the existence and life of the people first and foremost, and you can see and feel that everywhere.

While the northern border with China remained open for a while due to agreements with the latter, which left many Vietnamese bewildered, the government quickly regained confidence by committing to thorough inspections and supervision and even, eventually, banning visitors from China. Currently, getting into Vietnam has become nearly impossible for most, especially for tourists from the Schengen zone as Europe has developed into the new epicentre.

Every person who is suspected to be infected is put under quarantine immediately. As a follow-up, everyone who had contact with an alleged patient will be contacted, tested, and also isolated. When the 17th patient appeared, the Vietnamese army’s chemical division disinfected a whole street and restricted access to it right afterwards. Such measures might seem drastic but they work.

Furthermore, Vietnamese authorities remained transparent about the disease as well as allowing unrestricted information on social media. In fact, social media has been used in the best possible way to inform people about the state of the outbreak as well as prevention measures.

For six long weeks now, I am receiving daily updates from the Ministry of Health and other relevant organisations about the latest infections, advice to boost one’s immune system, and how to properly wear a mask and wash hands. The updates come especially via SMS and popular Zalo app.

However, even if someone has no phone or internet, it is hardly possible for a person not to know what to do or how the situation in the country is developing. Information about COVID-19 is everywhere in Hanoi – on large posters along nearly every major road, community boards in small alleys, advertisement screens in elevators, and even when ordering food via Grab or Now, you will get a message about the outbreak and what to do. Combined with word of mouth, it comes as no surprise that I have not met a single clueless person here.

Finally, the spirit of it all is stunning. I have seen posters and online graphics similar to those of the famous U23 football matches or war-like scenarios, usually along the lines of “Vietnam will be victorious (over COVID-19)”. With the now viral cover version of the popular song “ghen co vy”, which explains proper hand-washing techniques and includes messages of a united fight against the virus, I can only describe the spirit in town as a national movement.

Everyone seems to know what to do and works together to achieve the common goal. By the way, the song went so viral that there are now cover versions in English and countless in Vietnamese, such as the one by the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, published last Wednesday.

As a foreigner living in Vietnam for nearly six years now, there are of course many things I see that could be improved, as nothing is ever perfect. However, regarding the current health crisis and how the government and the people deal with it, I cannot think of a better place to be right now.

Vietnam has been doing an amazing job, and if I was a Vietnamese citizen, I would be proud of it.

By Etienne Mahler

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