The breached bulwark – how Vietnam needed to worry for the first time amid the pandemic

Covid-19 Jul 17, 2021

Saturday morning. I’m drinking instant coffee with milk out of the new fridge that my lover and me just bought a couple of days ago. After I moved in, we’ve made the room a lot cosier, adding not just a proper workspace and a comfortable bed, but also several pictures and decoration.

The fridge is our newest element and we both are very happy about it. Now, we don’t even need to walk two floors down to get something cool to drink or snack. A convenience that seems to matter to us more now than in the previous months. Probably because we’re much more at home these days.

Since the latest wave of Covid-19 infections has been sweeping over the country, the situation has become more serious. It’s now more than 545 days since Vietnam had its very first Covid-19 case within the country, a then-25-year-old Vietnamese woman who had been in Wuhan for a short business trip and returned to Vietnam on Jan 17, 2020[1], bringing with her the virus.

While the cases in China got increasingly more, reaching over 70,000 by mid-February 2020[2], here in Vietnam, we were merely dealing with 16 cases. Before March 7, 2020[3], this number should stay untouched.

We were invincible, it seemed.

And this feeling lasted until the latest wave breached the bulwark that Vietnam had been, at least until the end of April.

Around six weeks before that happened, Vietnam’s case number stood at a little over 2,500 – cute and almost neglectable, compared to the nearly 30 million cases in the US and the more than 11 million in Brazil at that time[4].

Solid start

Vietnam’s anti-pandemic measures during the beginning of the crisis – and well into 2021 – were more than feasible. Instead of letting people run around freely like it happened in many European countries – such as in my home country Germany – Vietnam decided to isolate each occurrence of suspected and actual infections.

This meant that, whenever someone was infected within the country – or came into Vietnam by plane – the person and essentially everyone around them was isolated on the spot. While we did have Covid-19 cases since the pandemic started, most of the time, I felt very safe here in Hanoi.

Chemical troops, before disinfecting Hanoi's Bach Mai Hospital at the end of March 2020 – CC-BY 3.0 Truyền Hình Pháp Luật

Generally speaking, Hanoi remained mostly unscathed during the entire pandemic so far. Though we did have several weeks of lockdown, we were otherwise free to do whatever we want, with a few exceptions. Except for a few of the last 78 weeks, we could go out and meet friends (if the group wasn’t too large), hang out at cafés to enjoy a nice cà phê nấu đá, and eat our favourite meal at a restaurant.

The only activities that had become scarce were going out clubbing, dancing, and partying. And even though I do miss that a lot, to be honest, it’s a relatively small price to pay for a nation that remained entirely safe for the most of the time.

Apples and oranges

During the first few months of the pandemic, I was often talking to my best friend back in Germany about the development of the health crisis in both countries. As mentioned earlier, Vietnam was incredibly safe until the latest wave, with me personally never worrying about getting infected with the virus.

Meanwhile, my friend in Germany watched the virus slowly taking over the country. What Germany’s response in the beginning? Stoicism, sort of.

Basically, Germany didn’t do very much as the first infections entered the country. As these slowly increased, people were starting to wonder what should be done.

Unfortunately, due to two important differences to Vietnam, Germany’s overall anti-pandemic measures were slow and mostly ineffective in the beginning.

First, Germany is a federal state, similar to the US. This means that much of the governance power lies in the hands of each of the 16 states (called “Bundesland”). For example, if you attend a German “Gymnasium”, the equivalent to an American high school, the curriculum and its difficulty will vary from state to state.

For the anti-pandemic measures this meant that each of the states had a different idea of how to cope with the health crisis. And for the longest time, Germany’s states remained disjointed, with each of them going down a different path.

The second problem that Germany had in the beginning was the strong individualism and the protection of the private sphere. Opinions are usually vastly different among Germans, no matter what the topic is.

Thus, it came as no surprise that, while many people were supporting the idea of wearing facemasks and follow other anti-pandemic measures, a large group of people was against this. And so the Germans did what they can do the best: They were discussing what should be done... back and forth... for months.

At a "Querdenker" demonstration in August 2020, people sit and stand on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse to protest against anti-pandemic measures – CC-BY 3.0 Gerddanigel

This fragmented reaction to the invading virus, at least in my opinion, was the reason that the number of infections could rise so high in Germany. Meanwhile, Vietnam was united and put every effort into keeping the infections as low as humanly possible.

After a few months, the talks with my best friend became almost surreal. While the infections – and casualties – in Germany were continuously rising throughout 2020, my life here in Vietnam remained mostly unscathed.

Towards the end of the last year, this more and more felt like comparing apples with oranges, as both countries’ overall situations were so far from each other, making it seem nearly unreal to me that I was totally safe while the world around me sank deeper into chaos.

Besieged stronghold

Despite the many infections and losses that Germans had to accept, my home country still held a joker in its hand, that is the immense financial power that makes it the richest country in the EU.

By mid-July, Germany had vaccinated almost 60% of the nation with at least one shot and more than 44% with both[5]. To recognise that this is probably linked to the country’s financial capacity, one does not need to be a scientist.

Meanwhile, Vietnam had only administered a little more than 4.1 million doses on July 17[6], with under 300,000 people fully vaccinated[7]. With a population of around 98 million, this compares to a percentage rate not even reaching 10%. The biggest two problems for Vietnam in this race are obviously the lower financial capabilities and the scarcity of vaccines.

Thus, with the current outbreak overshadowing the successes of the past and bringing the southern metropolis Ho Chi Minh City to a near-standstill, the stronghold Vietnam has much to fend off at the moment.

Does this mean Vietnam is now unsafe?

No.

While the number of infections has risen dramatically compared to last year, Vietnam can still pride itself with just over 44,000 cases and 225 casualties (as of July 17). For Vietnam, these numbers are extremely high, and of course every person’s life that the virus takes is one too much.

However, in the grand scheme, Vietnam’s infections – and especially its casualties – are nothing compared to other nations that had to suffer much more under the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese do what they did all the time: They mostly stick together, follow the guidance, and hope that everything will be over soon.

While you can see some people on the street who seem tired of the pandemic and social restrictions as they are not wearing a mask or cut in line in front of shops (though there are clear regulations for that at the moment), most continue to stick to the rules, at least in my experience.

Future in unity

There’s one major difference to Germany, when it comes to Vietnam’s way of fighting the pandemic: unity.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was not just the Vietnamese government with its decisive actions and measures that prevented and fought the health crisis, but also the people.

Throughout the pandemic, Vietnamese have made music videos, posters, TikTok clips, and many more types of media to promote what was later known as the so-called 5K rules:

  1. Khẩu trang (facemask)
  2. Khử khuẩn (disinfection)
  3. Khoảng cách (distance)
  4. Không tập trung (no gathering)
  5. Khai báo y tế (health declaration)

All of this promotion happened unpaid and in the spirit of fighting the pandemic together. This has been Vietnam’s strength throughout the entire pandemic.

I personally feel proud to be in this country, even though my own actions had little influence on the outcome so far. However, I’m proud of my Vietnamese lover, friends, and business partners.

Not a single one of them – not even once – questioned the preventive measures of the government or society. Not because they weren’t suffering under these measures – many of them were, at least financially – but because every one of them knows that the only way out of this pandemic is for all us to stick together and fight united.

Compared with Germany – where people continued to protest against the government’s restrictions, citing personal freedom and constitutional rights – the Vietnamese seemed to obey religiously.

However, is that really obeying?

While I’m sure some would like to see it this way, I don’t think that the unity among Vietnamese can be simply described as obeying the rules. I feel like it’s more social standard in Vietnam to gather forces and pull on one string.

The government guides and tells people what should be done. But there’s no question that people also follow this guidance (mostly), as they seem to agree with these rules. Because, even if these rules are uncomfortable, they save lives – something that everybody seems to know here.

Thus, I’m confident that Vietnam will be successful in fighting the pandemic, and I sincerely hope that people don’t have to suffer much longer on the way to victory.


References

1. Cuong, L. V., Giang, H. T. N., Linh, L. K., Shah, J., Sy, L. V., Hung, T. H., Reda, A., Truong, L. N., Tien, D. X., & Huy, N. T. (2020). The first Vietnamese case of COVID-19 acquired from China. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 20(4), 408–409. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30111-0

2. WHO. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report 28. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200217-sitrep-28-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=a19cf2ad_2

3. VnExpress. (2020, July 3). Vietnam confirms 17th Covid-19 patient—VnExpress International. VnExpress International – Latest News, Business, Travel and Analysis from Vietnam. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-confirms-17th-covid-19-patient-4065517.html

4. WHO. (2020, March 16). Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 – 16 March 2021. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/weekly-epidemiological-update---16-march-2021

5. RKI. (2021). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Weekly Situation Report from the Robert Koch Institute . https://www.rki.de/DE/Content/InfAZ/N/Neuartiges_Coronavirus/Situationsberichte/Jul_2021/2021-07-15-en.pdf?__blob=publicationFile

6. Center for Systems Science and Engineering. (2021, July 17). COVID-19 Dashboard. Johns Hopkins University. https://www.covidtracker.com/

7. VOV World. (2021, July 14). 280,000 Vietnamese fully vaccinated with double-dose coronavirus vaccines. VOV World; VOV World. https://vovworld.vn/en-US/content/ODcxMTU5.vov

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Etienne

BA Vietnamese Studies, blogger, and subeditor for a newspaper as well as some academic publications. Loves tech stuff, free thinking, and games.

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