[News] The Secret to Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success

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Wed Apr 22 15:05:15 EDT 2020

Secret to Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success
By Minh Vu and Bich T. Tran - April 18, 2020

A review of Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 and its implications.

[image: The Secret to Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success]

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, and his staff prepare
documents ahead of the Special ASEAN summit on COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam
Tuesday, April 14, 2020.
Credit: AP Photo/Hau Dinh

Vietnam planned to have a year packed with activities as the chair of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2020 and a nonpermanent
member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021
term. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation or
postponement of numerous events and summit meetings. While it is said that
the outbreak has derailed Vietnam’s diplomatic ambitions
the door remains open for Hanoi to transfer its domestic success in
fighting the disease into diplomatic achievements. As the world enters the
fourth month of the pandemic, Vietnam boasts a remarkably low infection
rate in a country of 95 million people, with only 268 confirmed cases (97
active and 171 recovered) with no deaths as of April 17. This statistic is
even more impressive given the long shared border with China, where the
virus originated. Let us review the timeline of Vietnam’s response to
COVID-19 and discuss its political implications.


Vietnam prepared for the outbreak before it recorded its first case. The
Ministry of Health issued urgent dispatches on outbreak prevention to relevant
government agencies on January 16
and to hospitals and clinics nationwide on January 21
Vietnam recorded its first cases on January 23
in Ho Chi Minh City, just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays. Two
Chinese nationals from Wuhan arrived in Vietnam on January 13 and traveled
throughout the country before being hospitalized on January 23. Shortly
after, the Vietnamese government ramped up its response by organizing
the National
Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention on January 30
the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to
be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern
On February 1
when the country only recorded six confirmed cases, Vietnamese Prime
Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed a decision declaring a national epidemic
of what was then known only as the novel coronavirus (nCoV). On February 9,
the Ministry of Health held a teleconference
with the WHO and 700 hospitals at all levels nationwide to disseminate
information on nCoV prevention and launched a website to disseminate
information to the wider public
On February 11, the WHO officially named
the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Aggressive preventive action
enabled Vietnam to contain the outbreak, with only 16 cases, all recovered,
by the end of February. For further context, the 16th patient was confirmed
on February 13 and fully recovered on February 25, meaning that Vietnam
went 22 days without any new cases. As a testament to this early success,
the U.S. Center for Diseases Control (CDC)
decided to take Vietnam off the list of countries with the risk of
community spread of the virus.

That early success, however, was impeded by the discovery of patient 17. The
patient traveled from Hanoi
on February 15 to visit England, Italy, and France before returning to
Hanoi on March 2 and failed to follow quarantine protocols. Patient 17 was
hospitalized on March 6, and two days later, on March 8, Deputy Prime
Minister and Minister of Health Vu Duc Dam declared that Vietnam had
officially entered the second phase of the fight against COVID-19.
Similar to the first phase, marked by the epidemic declaration, the
Vietnamese government escalated its public health response to flatten the
curve. On March 10, the Ministry of Health launched the health declaration
mobile application NCOVI
to help the public report their medical conditions and follow the contact
tracing operation, just before the WHO declared a global pandemic on March
This second phase marked the transition from phase one, in which patients
mostly originated from China, to a period when many countries were
potential sources of the virus.

The transition into the third phase was even faster. Following the
detection of two new clusters with unclear origins in Bach Mai Hospital in
Hanoi (patients zero there were patients 86 and 87) and Buddha Bar in HCM
City (patient zero was patient 91 overall), the Vietnamese government suspended
foreign entry
on March 22, and all exceptions, including national returnees, are
subjected to medical checks and mandatory 14-day quarantine. On March 23
the prime minister declared the third phase
of the pandemic fight as the risk of community spread is high. When Bach
Mai Hospital, one of the country’s top referral hospitals, became the
largest and most complex hotbed of COVID-19 in Vietnam following a record
of 10 cases linked to the hospital on March 28
March 30, Prime Minister Phuc announced a nationwide pandemic
during a meeting with the National Steering Committee for COVID-19
Prevention and Control. The following day on March 31, the prime minister
issued a new directive that would place the nation under limited lockdown
effective April 1. The directive enforced national isolation, banned
gatherings, and encouraged staying home, closing borders, and implementing
quarantine policy, among others.

*Explaining the Success*

Vietnam’s model for containing the outbreak has been touted as a
successful low-cost
model <https://www.ft.com/content/0cc3c956-6cb2-11ea-89df-41bea055720b>.
Whereas its neighbors, Taiwan and South Korea, could afford mass testing,
Vietnam lacked the resources and instead opted for selective but proactive
prevention. Aside from some common policy actions such as contact tracing,
ramping up production of medical supplies, and installing checkpoints at
airports, Vietnam found its success in proactiveness. Over the course of
three months since the first case, Vietnam has not hesitated to restrict
movements where needed, balancing overt caution with precision.

For example, the provincial authority was allowed to lock down villages and
communes following advisory notices from the Ministry of Health. Since the
first cases emerged, there were only five instances of large-scale
lockdowns. The first was on February 13 when Vinh Phuc Province confirmed
the 16th patient
<https://vietnaminsider.vn/vietnam-confirms-16th-coronavirus-patient/> in
Son Loi Commune, Binh Xuyen District. On the same day, local authorities
locked down the commune of 10,000 people, which confirmed eight patients
and established two field hospitals in Vinh Yen Town. The quarantine was
lifted on March 4,
20 days of no new cases. Second, following patient 17’s confirmation on
March 6, on March 7 Hanoi locked down Bach Truc Street, where the patient
resided along with 66 households and 189 people. The quarantine was lifted
on March 20 after no new cases were reported after testing.
The last three instances were all after the national limited lockdown
directive. On April 2
Hung Yen locked down Chi Trung commune following the confirmation of
patient 219. On April 7
Me Linh district of Hanoi locked down Ha Loi village following the
confirmation of patient 243. On April 8
Ha Nam province also quarantined Ngo Khe 3 village and medical personnel
related to patient 251. These instances of lockdowns contained the risks of
community transmission by strictly enforcing checkpoints in and out of the
localities and setting up local medical facilities for testing and

Another example of aggressive prevention is the closure of schools. Vietnam
recorded its first cases just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays,
which fortunately had schools closed through February 1. Nonetheless,
schools and government authorities extended the holiday season
until February 10 on a case-by-case basis. On February 14, the Ministry of
proposed schools to remain closed until the end of February, at which
point schools
had already closed nationwide
The decision to close schools nationwide, as a formality, came with the
national isolation order on March 31, effective April 1. Consequently,
Vietnamese students have not gone to school this spring semester, but
schools are gradually adopting online teaching.

Despite the aggressive nature of these responses, the underlying factor
that enables the Vietnamese government’s success is the mobilization of
nationalism. The government has framed the virus as a common foreign enemy
and called on the unity of the population to defeat it, echoing the
enduring history of a nation always threatened by foreign invaders. Since
“day one,” the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the state have led the
fight with the motto “fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the
enemy.” Nonetheless, calls for nationalism are not without setbacks, as
public sentiment was at one point villainizing Vietnamese students
returning from abroad for carrying potential risks of transmission. Patient
17 was a notorious example that garnered public criticism, reflecting the
effectiveness of the government in rallying the public but also the risk of
overzealous nationalism.

In addition, the government has positioned itself as an effective source of
leadership during the pandemic by providing information with transparency.
The Ministry of Health took the initiative to launch a website and a mobile
application not only to ease the medical process but also to disseminate
accurate information quickly. The digital apparatus helped stem the spread
of rumors and fake news, in addition to legal enforcement against people
who spread inaccurate information or engage in profiteering. State media
have also constantly covered the hotspots of the pandemic like China,
Italy, Spain, and the United States to raise public awareness about the
seriousness of COVID-19 and to demonstrate the essential of robust
government intervention.

By being transparent and proactive in communicating with the public, the
government was able to gain and maintain public confidence. In a Dalia
Research survey of 45 countries asking about public opinion of government
responses to the pandemic, 62 percent of Vietnamese participants said that
the government is doing the “right amount,” topping the survey’s average
with a higher rate than other “model” countries such as Singapore and South

*Translating Domestic Success Globally*

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues and disrupts ASEAN economies, on
February 20 the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC), along with ASEAN and
Chinese foreign ministers, met in the ACC’s Special ASEAN-China Foreign
Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease in Laos to discuss response to
the outbreak
The ACC welcomed the timely and effective measures of member countries,
healthcare cooperation, and ASEAN agencies to share information and
experience in preventing, diagnosing, treating, and controlling the
disease. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs
Pham Binh Minh proposed pursuing a balanced approach in fighting the
epidemic and maintaining open economic policies, while ensuring regular
updates were made available to the public.

As the pandemic escalated in early March, the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the
36th ASEAN Summit were postponed, but Vietnam could still find venues to
export its domestic success. On March 31, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister
Nguyen Quoc Dung chaired the first teleconference of the ASEAN Coordinating
Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies
The meeting was followed by a teleconference between senior officials of
ASEAN and the United States
attended by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian
and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, on April 1. Both meetings aimed to
promote cooperation within the ASEAN Community and between ASEAN and the
United States to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic by sharing information
about the situation and implementation of measures taken in each country,
while affirming the commitment to strengthen cooperation. Following these
meetings, Vietnam chaired the 25th ACC Meeting on April 9 and the Special
ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit on April 14 in which ASEAN members and their
dialogue partners China, Japan, and South Korea agreed in principle to set
up a joint fund to combat the pandemic.

Bilaterally, Vietnam has donated test kits and masks to many countries.
Among them, Cambodia and Laos are its close friends, and the United States,
United Kingdom, and Spain are its comprehensive and strategic partners. In
supporting others, Vietnam has demonstrated its commitment to traditional
relations and strengthened relationships with important partners.

Vietnam’s model is an example for countries and territories with limited
resources and/or at early stages of fighting COVID-19 with a low number of

*Minh Vu is a graduating student of the Master of Arts in Asian Studies
Program, Georgetown University. He has worked at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS), East-West Center in Washington, and is
currently an assistant at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, Inc.*

*Bich T. Tran is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Antwerp. She is a
visiting fellow at the Global Affairs Research Center and a former Asia
Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington.*
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