Vietnam – a developing nation in Southeast Asia with a population of more than 90 million and a shared border with China where the coronavirus outbreak first began – had the odds stacked against it from the start.
Yet, somewhat miraculously, the country has not reported a single death from COVID-19 and has only faced 327 coronavirus cases to date, of which, 272 have recovered. Thanks to the government’s swift response which successfully flattened the curve, Vietnam became one of the first countries in the world to ease lockdown measures and reopen its society. It’s an impressive feat and a rather enviable position compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy where the COVID-19 death tolls have surpassed 30,000.
So how did they do it?
Essentially Vietnam’s success comes down to proactive communication from the government, targeted lockdowns and rigorous testing. These three steps became pivotal in keeping the pandemic at bay. But perhaps the biggest factor in their success was that they acted quickly.
Unlike some leaders around the world, the Vietnamese government took the coronavirus seriously from the get-go. They knew that they did not have enough finances or medical resources to handle a full-blown pandemic and so they acted quickly in spreading the message to citizens about the dangers of the virus and the importance of hand-washing and sanitisation. People were advised of the risks, details of the symptoms and protection measures were communicated via text, and creative campaigns featuring viral hand-washing songs and propaganda-style art were used.
“It has become a matter of patriotism to wash one’s hands and stay home — a message that has been successfully communicated through various forms of popular art and propaganda about COVID-19,” Dr Huong Le Thu, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC.
After Vietnam reported its first two cases of coronavirus in late January, the government also introduced significant lockdown measures. On 1 February, Vietnam Airlines ceased all flights to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and the border with China was shut just days later. All aircraft was carefully decontaminated and any passengers showing abnormal signs of health were reported to authorities.
After cases picked up in other countries, the government began providing quarantine facilities for all those suffering from, or suspected of having, COVID-19. When international borders officially closed on 22 March, anyone arriving home from abroad was tested and automatically taken to these facilities to self-quarantine for 14 days. Not long after, domestic travel was halted and mild city lockdowns began – despite their relatively low case numbers. Restaurants, cafes, shops, and businesses catering to the public were shut down, street vendors were told to stay home and masks became compulsory in public places.
Vietnam’s measures of testing were also notable. Starting in February, anyone arriving at an airport in a major Vietnamese city had to go through compulsory body temperature screening and fill in a health self-declaration, stating their contact details and travel and health history. This is also mandatory at hospitals. Anyone with a body temperature of over 38C is taken to the nearest medical facility for more thorough testing. In January, the country only had three labs that could conduct tests for coronavirus, however by April they had created 112. Communities who live near confirmed cases – sometimes entire streets or villages – are swiftly tested and placed in lockdown.
The country’s swift testing methods were made possible after Vietnamese scientists developed several low-cost test kits. In comparison, at the same time in March, the US was yet to have one. According to reports, by late April, Vietnam had conducted more than 260,000 tests. They did not just flatten the curve, they smashed it – a report by Bloomberg is calling it the “sledgehammer” approach.
Returning to normal
With very few new cases arising, Vietnam eased lockdowns in its major cities on 23 April. Most businesses have reopened as well as tourist attractions and schools, subject to social distancing measures, temperature checks and new sanitising practices. To help boost the economy Vietnam Airlines plans to resume all domestic flights by the beginning of June.
While questions have been raised regarding the accuracy of Vietnam’s case reporting, experts including Dr Huong Le Thu have expressed confidence in the data and suggested there is “no reason” to doubt the figures. Reuters also did a study that confirmed there was no spikes in death rates or increased bookings at funeral homes that would suggest false reporting. It just goes to show, you don’t need to be financially benefited to combat the coronavirus.