Keeping calm and carrying on: Việt Nam sets a coronavirus example
Update: Mar 20, 2020
As much of the western world descends into a COVID-19-induced panic, nations in close proximity to China have remained relatively calm.  

Foreign tourists wear face masks during a cyclo ride in Hà Nội. — VNS Photo Alexander McNab

By March 2, Việt Nam had registered only 16 cases of the virus, all of which had been treated successfully and released from hospital. The country’s 17th case, imported on a flight from London, kicked off a new wave of cases, which as of writing stands at 76.

Even with a new wave of cases, the numbers are far from those witnessed in the western world. The issue has been taken seriously, with all suffering symptoms put in quarantine and tested, while their places of residence are locked down and sanitised. Việt Nam was one of the first nations to declare an epidemic and has been quick in its response, both in handling current cases and ensuring the spread of the virus is as limited as possible.

The country has been putting in place preparations since January, knowing the potential impacts of the epidemic. From the start, Việt Nam has been ready to sacrifice economic gain for the greater good of a healthy population. It seems that readiness has worked. If strict, the measures have so far paid off – with no deaths recorded, in stark comparison to the ballooning numbers in Italy and the rest of Europe. Many of these countries have now been placed under lockdown, and clips of sequestered residents singing from their balconies demonstrate a resilience of spirit, if not evidence of preparedness on the parts of their governments.

It seems authorities in the west are playing catch-up, having displayed a sense of nonchalance in the early days and are now realising the error of their ways. For many, places like Việt Nam represent a form of sanctuary compared to their homes. Posts on Facebook say how expats are feeling safer abroad than in the UK, US or Canada. The transparency with which authorities have dealt with the situation has also been praised, helping cement public trust and stop undue panic before it starts.

The reaction here has been nothing short of exemplary. As supermarkets in many countries are raided for essential supplies, shelves remain fully stocked and those in quarantined areas are helped through community efforts to supply food, water and other goods. There was no run on loo roll, perhaps due to the prevalence of the celebrated ‘bum gun’, or more likely because of trust in the authorities’ ability to manage the problem.

A high level of consideration for others is pervasive, while announcements from the Government have been factual and prompt, adding to the prevailing sense of calm. The early declaration from Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc – of waging a battle against the virus as if it were an enemy – set the State up for an ‘all-government’ effort against COVID-19. In addition to sober announcements and policy changes, light-hearted songs have captured the world’s attention and made the case that we’re all in this together.

New rules mean that everyone must wear face masks in public places. — VNS Photo Ollie Arci

All for one

While other nations are slowly closing schools and shutting down large-scale events, such action has been going on here for weeks. Bottles of communal hand sanitiser quickly popped up in public places, while signs, posters and ads are now common across major cities. Temperatures are also checked on entry to big buildings. Recent rules mandating the use of face masks may seem draconian, and the jury is still out on their efficacy, but the simple gesture is one demonstrating a level of seriousness towards the safety of the community as a whole. As a guest, it seems only right to adapt and embrace.

The incredible, wide-reaching response is necessary for a country of nearly 100 million. But more incredible is the low number of cases despite the long border with China and the continuing efforts of global economic integration. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has praised the efforts of the Vietnamese Government, saying: “Early detection, early isolation, and active treatment is extremely important. Việt Nam’s early actions stopped the further spread of the disease, saving thousands of lives.”

The UK's National Health Service, much-vaunted and yet critically underfunded for years, was teetering on the brink long before the coronavirus reared its contagious head. If you thought Brexit was the final nail in the coffin, it could in fact be COVID-19 which pushes the overworked staff and creaking facilities into oblivion. In contrast, Việt Nam's public health service may not have the sheen of western counterparts, but has received funding over the years, allowing for a level of preparedness required for just such a crisis. A rapidly deployed plan has designated facilities across the country as quarantine and treatment centres, while doctors, nurses and other medical staff are ready at a moment’s notice to reach potential new outbreak clusters.

Even tourists arriving in Việt Nam after immigration restrictions were implemented were full of praise despite being quarantined, with one couple writing in a letter posted on social media: “We respect the fact that this is what had to happen in the circumstances and we are very thankful to the hospital and all the staff for looking after us so well.”

Other countries seem to be backpedalling frantically against their slow response, like Italy, or weighing options while citizens become frantic, like the UK. A far cry from the Blitz spirit. A British tourist shipped into quarantine on arrival said: “while the rest of the world waited, Việt Nam has been preparing.”

Whether the stringent measures pay dividends over the long run is yet to be seen, but in terms of social sentiment, the east is definitely winning this war at the moment.

Ollie Arci