One of the important aspects of Vietnam’s public health policy is its remarkable ability to contain the spread of contagious diseases but it has received scant international attention than it deserves. The Lowy Institute, a think tank, published an index on 28th January 2021 ranking 98 countries and their success in handling the coronavirus pandemic. Vietnam ranked No. 2 behind New Zealand. This is all the more glaring as Vietnam is geographically connected with China through the land border and has adjoining coastal boundaries and at the time of the outbreak of coronavirus in China a number of Vietnamese were there, who returned to Vietnam to celebrate the lunar new year. In addition, the Chinese ships and boats were intruding into the EEZs of Vietnam and often Vietnamese fishermen were coming into the physical contact of the Chinese soldiers/coast guard personnel.
Vietnam has faced several waves of such diseases since 2003 and deftly contained them: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 and human cases of avian influenza between 2004 and 2010. Even this time it faced three waves in 2020- the first wave in January, the second in March and third in July. In all the three waves Vietnam significantly succeeded in containing the spread of the disease that kept the number of patients low and the fatalities were few.
Vietnam detected the first case on the 23rd January and soon it began to take steps to check further spread of the virus. Vietnam immediately formed a national steering committee to coordinate the country’s “whole of government” strategy. Risk assessment was conducted immediately. Educational institutes were closed in the affected regions. In Vinh Phuc, a northern province about an hour’s drive from Hanoi, locked down was imposed on Son Loi commune, patients were isolated and their close contacts in quarantine camps for at least 14 days. It also activated community-wide screening at the first evidence of community spread. It closed borders, imposed lockdowns, set up quarantine facilities at larger scale, and carried out rigorous contact tracing and testing through apps in the early phase of the outbreak. Vietnam also kept track of second, third and fourth levels of contact to infected persons. Vietnam instituted rigorous quarantine policies. When China reported its first coronavirus death, Vietnam immediately implemented health checks at airports where all visitors had their body temperatures scanned. It suspended all flights between Vietnam and China in the early stage and later all international flights. Identifying the hot spot and taking necessary steps to isolate the region began early in Vietnam.
In March 2020, Vietnam witnessed the second wave of Covid-19. Soon after the first case of the second wave was detected, the government tracked and isolated about 200 close contacts of those infected. Other measures to keep the infection under check were imposed. Testing in the identified regions was scaled up. Educational institutes were closed. People were asked to wear masks.
The third wave hit the country in July. After 99 days of no infection, the Covid-19 resurfaced on 25th July 2020. This time the coastal city Danang, which is a tourist attraction, became the epicentre of this wave. The virus spread very fast to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. By the end of December, 2362 persons were affected and the death toll was 35. Vietnam turned to the same strategies that had been successful in ending earlier outbreaks to contain the disease: targeted lockdowns, travel bans, business closures, mass quarantines, and widespread testing. As of mid-September, 61,968 people were being monitored, 998 were quarantined in health care facilities, 15,619 were quarantined in centralized facilities, and 45,351 were self-quarantined at home.
As can be seen, the number of affected persons and death toll remained very low. The credit for this goes to taking timely action. One factor that helped Vietnam significantly was that it had experience of dealing with similar epidemics as mentioned earlier. Consequently, it also has an appropriate infrastructure to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam has also invested heavily in its health care system, with public health expenditures per capita increasing an average rate of 9 percent per year between 2000 and 2016.
Three aspects of Vietnam’s response to pandemic are important. First, Vietnam responded firmly at the outbreak of the all the waves of virus. It suspended all flights from mainland China, followed by all international flights not long after the second wave was detected. Visas and visitors were also stopped to control the spread of the virus. The Government of Vietnam made the drastic decision to evacuate 80,000 visitors from Danang. The city conducted large-scale sterilisation procedures to control the spread of COVID-19 and tightened movement controls. Full lockdown was imposed in the city. A 500-bed field hospital for coronavirus patients was also set up.
Second, Vietnam’s approach to identify and quarantine suspected cases was based on their epidemiological risk of infection. If they had come in contact with a confirmed case or travelled to a COVID-19 affected country, they were subjected to isolation and testing even if they did not show any sign of the disease. Crucially, the high proportion of cases that never develop symptoms (43 percent) suggests that this approach may have been a key contributor to containing community transmission at an early stage.
Third, Vietnam’s success in seeking cooperation from its citizens through effective public awareness programme. The social distancing norms were rigorously followed by citizens. Vietnam again encouraged the neighbourhood watch system. Vietnamese citizens were told to inform about their neighbours, if they suspected that someone was suffering from the disease. The cooperation from citizens was very good. Since they had faced earlier such diseases, they easily and willingly adopted the required measures.
Vietnam also shared its experience with other countries in the ASEAN. Vietnam as the Chair of ASEAN issued a statement in mid-February drawing attention to the risks of this virus and called for regional and international cooperation. In April, the Vietnam organised the online Special ASEAN+3 Summit on the COVID-19 response. The countries agreed to exchange experience and support each other with medical supplies. Vietnam participated in several international virtual meetings and shared its experience and proposed measures to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam also supplied the much-needed medical equipment and protective gears not only in the region but beyond in Asia, Europe, US and South America. This aspect was praised by other countries and improved its international image significantly.
In essence, Vietnam’s success in handling the virus depended on three factors: contact tracing at four levels, strategic testing, and clear messaging for social distancing, use of masks, isolation when necessary, which were followed by citizens. Vietnam acted very quickly and firmly imposing lockdowns when necessary coupled with strategic testing. These steps helped in containing the pandemic in the country in all the waves with minuscule number of deaths despite its about 97 million population. Vietnam, in fact, has emerged as a model for dealing with this virus.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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