Vietnam’s COVID-19 Success: Thoughts from an American Living in Ho Chi Minh City
It’s been 67 days (as of publishing) since the last confirmed community transmission of COVID-19 in Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million people that shares a 1444-km border with China, its neighbor with which it has, for all its political and social complications, an extremely active and productive trade and economic relationship.
Meanwhile, in the United States, my home country and where I spent the first 24 years of my life, there’s been somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000–30,000+ new cases confirmed every day, averaging out to a new infection occurring somewhere in the country every 3–4 seconds. Every day I wake up experiencing a cocktail of emotions ranging from anxiety and worry about my at-risk family members to disgust and shame at the atrocious response to the pandemic by the government of a country that is supposedly the greatest in the history of the world. At least, that’s what we’ve all been told, starting from before we could even walk or talk.
But this piece isn’t about the United States. For better or worse, the global spotlight on the US broadcasts its successes and failures to the entire world, and all of you should already know by now about the tragedy that’s been slowly unfolding there over the last few months. This piece is about another country, a country that for centuries had to fight, literally, for international recognition of the most basic aspect of its existence: its sovereignty and independence. This is about a country that still hasn’t been getting the international recognition it deserves for a variety of recent accomplishments, but most notably its complete and total domination of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
For those of you outside Vietnam, it’s hard to sum up just how sensationally the country has handled this pandemic. With a national healthcare budget that’s a mere fraction of that of the United States, Vietnam has managed to keep the number of infections extremely low (349 at time of publishing, a sizable portion of which includes imported cases resulting from the repatriation of Vietnamese citizens abroad).
Even more remarkably, Vietnam has prevented even a single death from occurring due to COVID-19, an incredible statistic surely made possible by a bit of good fortune, but even more so by an extremely well-organized and well-executed government response that successfully limited the number of active infections in the country, which prevented the healthcare systems of the country from being overwhelmed and has allowed the nurses and doctors to treat all of the COVID-19 patients, from the asymptomatic ones to the sickest, with as much care and attention as necessary.
(Read here about the remarkable recovery of Vietnam’s sickest COVID-19 patient: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/society/20200616/british-pilot-vietnam-s-sickest-coronavirus-patient-practices-walking-with-doctors/55114.html)
There’s already been a lot of writing on the details of the country’s response and prevention strategy, so I won’t focus on the details here. However, as a teacher, the first thing that immediately caught my attention was the closure of schools across the entire country, which essentially extended the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday break for a couple more weeks. I was shocked at the quick response, and was certainly not the only person to label the move an overreaction given that the country only had a handful of cases at the time. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and with the previous experience that the country has had with pandemics, such as SARS, the move was calculated and well-thought out, and it is easy to see now that it was far from an overreaction.
The national school closures were essentially extended indefinitely, and in tandem with strict contact-tracing methods, closed borders, mandatory quarantines for those in contact with confirmed infected patients, unprecedented transparency and communication from the government, and a somewhat strict social isolation period that forced the majority of non-essential businesses to close and banned public gatherings of more than 2 people throughout the month of April, the spread of COVID-19 in Vietnam never really took off as it did in much of the rest of the world.
(Read here for a more detailed explanation of Vietnam’s strategy: https://ayrshirecu.com/2020/04/12/pandemic-perspective-community-response-in-vietnam/).
It’s hard to overstate the strangeness of the feeling that results from hearing updates on the situation in the US and around the world, and then hopping on my motorbike and driving into the city to go to work and stand in front of 20 mask-less students, or going to a non-socially-distanced coffee shop or bar, or even simply looking outside and seeing life go on as it did 6 months ago before this all began. I was actually in the United States at the end of January when the pandemic had begun to make international headlines, and I had to wonder to myself if flying back to Asia at the beginning of February was really a good idea. Of course, it turned out to be the best idea. Staying at home never seriously crossed my mind, but I’m extremely thankful that my trip home hadn’t been a month or so later, because it would have been a much more challenging decision by that point, or perhaps even impossible to get back to Vietnam even if I’d wanted to.
It’s difficult to put into words just how proud I am of my second home, and to explain just how odd it feels to be living in a metaphorical bubble of safety while much of the world is still reeling from this virus. But I truly believe that Vietnam, against long odds, has become one of the best and safest places to be during this pandemic, and I hope that the rest of the world can learn some valuable lessons from how this amazing country has handled the COVID-19 situation so far.