Restoring Public Trust in Vietnam’s Pandemic Response: A Bumpy Road Ahead
The worst wave of Covid-19 infections to hit Vietnam since late April has threatened to chip away at the hard-earned public trust the government was able to engender last year. That is a major concern for a regime that relies on public support and patriotic nationalism to boost its legitimacy.
On the night of 30 September 2021, right after Ho Chi Minh City relaxed its pandemic lockdowns, thousands of migrant workers fled the economic hub in droves. The city had been the epicentre of Vietnam’s most severe coronavirus outbreak and the exodus took place against the backdrop of the authorities urging the workers to stay put while promising to find jobs for them. Earlier in late August, when the Ho Chi Minh City administration announced plans to bar residents from leaving their homes and reassured them that the food supply would be sufficient, the public did not appear to buy into it. Panic buying ensued, and endless queues of people formed at supermarkets and food items flew off the shelves. These were instances of public skepticism about the government’s pandemic messaging.
They stood in stark contrast to the exceptional public support and compliance the government had enjoyed in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak last year. According to the Covid-19 behaviour tracker compiled by YouGov, a British data analytics firm, and Imperial College London, nearly 97 per cent of Vietnamese polled between May and July of 2020 said the government was handling the crisis “very” or “somewhat” well. However, since the worst wave of Covid-19 infections hit Vietnam in April 2021, public confidence in the government has dropped. Latest data from the same YouGov survey found that by early May 2021, about 83 per cent of Vietnamese polled said they trusted the government’s pandemic handling, a decrease of 14 percentage points. While this figure was still well above that of comparable data in Southeast Asia, it marked a 10-month low in Vietnam.
This paper addresses these following questions: How much of a bearing has the latest outbreak had on public trust in Vietnam’s Covid handling? How have Vietnamese authorities addressed recent public grievances? What observations can we make of the Vietnamese government’s efforts to reverse waning public confidence in its pandemic response?
WHAT CHIPS AWAY AT PUBLIC CONFIDENCE?
Until late April 2021, Vietnam had maintained one of the world’s lowest coronavirus infection rates, having logged fewer than 3,000 cases and suffering just 35 deaths. But that has since skyrocketed to over one million cases and around 23,200 deaths as of this writing. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic hub, accounted for half of the infections and 80 per cent of fatalities in the country.
Vietnam’s pandemic response plunged from being a shining example to being a cautionary tale. Like several other countries that have become a victim of their own success, Vietnam was facing a triple threat: It reined in the pandemic so well that it had little natural immunity; its access to vaccines was limited, for various reasons; and, it was besieged by the deadlier and more transmissible Delta variant.
There were several factors that were beyond the government’s control. Chief among them: Rich countries were hoarding vaccines. India, a major vaccine maker, stopped exports in March to tackle its own Covid-19 crisis. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam had expressed no interest in purchasing Chinese vaccines until June. Unlike wealthier countries, Vietnam was short of the money or negotiating muscle when working with vaccine companies to ensure promised deals would be kept fast enough.
Significantly, the strong levels of public support [for Vietnam’s vaccine rollout] do not appear to have been strongly amplified by the possible involvement of pro-government cyber troops and public opinion shapers.
Vietnamese officials also drew public criticism for resting on their laurels. In November 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, then head of the Covid-19 task force, said that the country would stick to its strategy of containing the virus rather than jostle for supplies of vaccines that could turn out to be “financially risky.” The authorities may have had high hopes in Vietnam’s four homegrown shots carried out in a bid to avert reliance on imported vaccines and to bolster the country’s international credentials. Several critics pointed out that Vietnam’s leaders had squandered several months on the political transition instead of hammering out a feasible vaccine strategy.
It was actually not until June that Vietnam expedited efforts to secure foreign vaccines, a belated move that placed it far back in the queue. The vaccine shortages compelled the authorities to rely on lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus. In July, authorities started imposing strict pandemic curbs, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City. Protracted lockdowns, however, have exacted a heavy economic and mental toll on the public, leaving tens of thousands jobless and hungry. In late September, Vietnam’s gross domestic product plummeted 6.17 percent on year for the July-September period, the first quarterly decline since 2000.
To gauge public responses in cyberspace, this ISEAS research programme conducted in-depth content analysis of Vietnam’s vaccine rollout, social safety nets and public communications messaging and analysed discussions about them from 1 May 1 to 31 October 2021. The methodology involves gleaning the most significant and distinctive keywords that typified pro-government and anti-government narratives from over a thousand posts and their comments on online forums, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. (Facebook and YouTube have remained the leading social media platforms in Vietnam while TikTok is increasingly popular among Generation Z there.) These keywords are subsequently fed into social media listening frameworks to generate granular comparative sentiment analysis graphs, depicting Vietnamese netizens’ responses to the various aspects of the government’s pandemic management.
PUBLIC SENTIMENT ON THE GOVERNMENT’S HANDLING OF THE PANDEMIC
Overall, public criticism dwarfed public support during the corresponding period. The gap widened significantly in August and September, when Covid caseloads and deaths peaked (Figure 1). That was the period of drawn-out lockdowns. In September, Ho Chi Minh City recorded one of the highest death rates in Southeast Asia.
As Figure 1 shows, public support peaked on June 4, when the dominant narrative of the supportive camp focused on expressing confidence that Vietnam would be able to beat the latest wave and achieve its dual goal of pandemic control and economic growth. But interestingly, an almost equal level of public criticism was also registered a day earlier. Internet users lamented that the authorities should have done more to prevent a surge by curtailing travel during the long holidays in late April and early May, when infections began edging up. Criticism peaked on September 8 over the perceived government’s incompetency in handling the pandemic that led to surging numbers, hospital overload and mass unemployment. Public criticism has been on the downward trend since Vietnam partially reopened in October.
Public sentiments online in both camps each revolved around the following key messages:
|Public Support||Public Criticism|
|Given its past success and the national solidarity, Vietnam will soon beat the latest wave of Covid-19 infections. |
The quiet sacrifice of frontline workers, doctors and healthcare staff in particular, in the fight against the pandemic is immeasurable.
The government has left no stone unturned to contain the latest wave.
|In suppressing the chain of transmission, the Vietnamese government should not have prized the containment strategy over securing vaccine supplies. |
The “no-one-is-left-behind” pledge by the authorities is ringing hollow.
Last year, the government was transparent on the number of Covid caseloads and deaths as well as its ability to deliver on the lockdown promises. That was no longer the case during this latest wave.
PUBLIC SENTIMENTS ON SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF VIETNAM’S PANDEMIC RESPONES
This section sheds light on how the public reacted to three aspects of the Vietnamese government’s pandemic response, namely vaccine rollout, social safety nets and public messaging.
Despite the slowness of Vietnam’s vaccine rollout, online criticism of the government’s handling of this issue was surprisingly low. Public support reached its peak early on June 4, with the dominant narratives centering on the strong willingness of Vietnamese to get a vaccine shot in order for Vietnam to achieve herd immunity as soon as possible. The late May–early June period was also when the government launched a fund to secure much-needed doses of coronavirus vaccines. The public heeded the call, and donations began pouring in.
Significantly, the strong levels of public support do not appear to have been strongly amplified by the possible involvement of pro-government cyber troops and public opinion shapers. Figures 2 and 2B show comparative charts for levels of public support of Vietnam’s vaccine rollout, and when data from pro-government Facebook pages (see Appendix 5) were included and when they were excluded. The overall result was more or less the same; the levels of public support were only marginally lower when data from pro-government Facebook pages were excluded (Figure 2B). This strongly suggests that public support of the government’s vaccine rollout was likely organic and not significantly orchestrated.
Also of interest are the trends in public sentiments towards Vietnam’s decision to procure Chinese vaccines. In July, the Ministry of Health licensed Van Thinh Phat, a local company, to import five million doses of Sinopharm’s Vero Cell vaccines to address Vietnam’s acute vaccine shortfall. The move initially triggered some public resistance both on social media and in real life. As seen in Figure 2, there were sharp spikes in public criticism between late July and late August, with the dominant narratives revolving around the rejection of Chinese vaccines. But between late August and September, these had dropped significantly, incidentally coinciding with surging cases across southern Vietnam and the growing salience of the government’s narrative that “the best vaccine is the first one you have.”
That message apparently resonated with the public in a country where, according to another YouGov survey, 89 per cent of Vietnamese polled between July and September said they would be willing to take a Covid-19 shot. It was during this period that public sentiments online started to shift to this narrative: getting a Covid shot in order to go back to normal life is preferable to getting stuck in lockdown indefinitely. Chinese jabs have since been administered on a voluntary basis across southern Vietnam without any major hiccups. Vietnam’s recent go-ahead for the purchase of another 20 million doses of Vero Cell shots did not trigger any major backlash in the online sphere.
Social safety nets
The Vietnamese government attracted more – if not most – public criticism over support for its Covid-19 social safety nets (Figure 3). Internet users on the supportive and critical camps coalesced around a “master narrative”, each consisting of three key messages:
|Public Support||Public Criticism|
|We’re all in this together so instead of venting, let’s join hands to help those who are more vulnerable. |
The government will not leave the people in the lurch during the pandemic.
The deployment of soldiers to deliver food and aid to households is a necessary and timely move.
|The authorities, especially those at local levels, have delivered poorly on their financial aid pledges. |
Hunger and unemployment will kill people before Covid does.
This latest wave of infections has laid bare the incompetence of the political apparatus.
On the issue of the Vietnamese government’s rollout of social safety nets, during the early stage of the latest wave (between early May and mid July), public support was equal to or even greater than critical voices. Public support was at its highest on July 2, when online discussion zeroed in on the call to join hands with the government to push back the coronavirus. But public criticism started to eclipse public support in early August; the sharpest spike occurred from later that month to mid-September. Public criticism peaked on September 8, when Internet users vented their grievances mostly against unemployment and bankruptcy. During the late August-mid September period, social media was also inundated with complaints about how hospitals and quarantine centres came under great pressure and how the authorities were slow to respond to calls for help.
Public grievances stemmed largely from the slow disbursement of a government stimulus package totalling VND26 trillion (US$1.1 billion) designed to support informal workers and poor households. At live broadcasts of questions from the public to Ho Chi Minh City officials, nerves were evidently on edge as disgruntled citizens repeatedly clamoured for their overdue financial aids. A survey in August by VnExpress, which brands itself as “the most read online Vietnamese newspaper”, found that of around 69,000 people polled, 62 per cent said they lost their jobs because of the pandemic; many of them became unemployed for more than six months.
The sharpest spike in public criticism occurred from late August to late September. The public was growing increasingly skeptical of what it perceived to be a sanitised narrative of the crisis.
The deployment of soldiers to enforce a stricter lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City in late August also failed to allay public worries. The mainstream media ramped up the message that the core task of the troops, besides patrolling the streets or standing guard at posts, was to deliver food and aid to households. But with Ho Chi Minh City already crippled by a shortage of delivery workers, the troops were soon snowed under with orders of essential goods, food in particular. A looming food delivery crisis unnerved the public and caused a relentless furore online, forcing the authorities to allow professional shippers back to the delivery rollout just several days after having boots on the ground.
The government dialed up its “no-one-is-left-behind” rhetoric particularly between late August and mid-September (Chart 1). But as Figure 3 shows, that was also the peak time when scores of Internet users lamented that they were waiting in vain for official support.
This is also an area where the government fell short of public expectations, drawing more criticism than support (Figure 4). The “master narrative” circulated by Internet users in both camps each consisted of three key messages:
|Public Support||Public Criticism|
|Government leaders, the prime minister in particular, have made great outreach efforts to allay public concern about the pandemic.|
Contact-tracing apps are much needed to help break the chain of transmission.
Media stories about national solidarity and philanthropy are much needed during these trying times.
|• In getting their messages across, the authorities failed to be first, right and credible. Mixed messaging, delays and confusion have been colouring people’s daily life during the pandemic.|
• The rollout of a raft of contact-tracing apps without integrating their databases only created myriad hassles for their users.
• The implementation of central guidelines on pandemic controls has been subject to conflicting interpretations and dogged by red tape across provinces.
Similar to the Covid social safety nets, the government, as based on Figure 4, enjoyed public support for its messaging during the early stage of the latest outbreak from early May until mid-July. But there was a marked crossover in public sentiments around early August, when public criticism started to dwarf public support. The sharpest spike in public criticism occurred from late August to late September. The public was growing increasingly skeptical of what it perceived to be a sanitised narrative of the crisis. As cases continued surging, the number of Covid deaths rarely made headlines in mainstream media until October. When news outlets kept a tally of daily infections, the number of deaths was placed at the bottom. In an attempt to inject “positive energy” into the public discourse, state-controlled media was ordered to publish feel-good stories related to the pandemic. Against that backdrop, chat groups and social media buzzed with clips and posts that claimed to reveal how the plan to deal with the pandemic was unraveling.
The lack of transparency, consistency and credibility in communication was another major source of public frustration. When it came to lifting pandemic curbs, public hopes had been dashed too many times as the authorities kept backpedaling on their oft-repeated “the-new-normal” promises (Chart 2).
As Figure 4 shows, the public was most dismal on September 30, one day ahead of the reopening phase. The complaints centred around a lack of a well-coordinated national effort to articulate and enforce the government strategy on living with Covid-19 and the concern about data privacy in a slew of contact-tracing apps. Public criticism declined, however, after the country reopened in October. Since then, public support has also gained momentum and hit its peak on October 19, when Internet users acknowledged that they had started to receive more “useful information” on how to go about their daily lives in the reopening phase.
Judging by public sentiments online, even though the vaccine rollout went off to a slow start, it has been the only area where the public has expressed more sympathy for the authorities than criticism. The government drew most public ire for its Covid social safety nets.Unlike during previous waves, the government’s public communications have also fallen short of expectations this time around.
It was oversimplistic at best for Western media to accredit Vietnam’s relative pandemic success last year squarely to its authoritarian rule and the “draconian” measures designed to rein in the coronavirus. In fact, it was the uncharacteristically transparent governance and effective messaging that earned the public’s approval and proved instrumental to securing their compliance.
But as our analysis has showed, the levels of public support for the government’s pandemic response have generally plummeted. For the Vietnamese government, vaccination rollout aside, how to fortify the social safety nets and to fine-tune its public messaging will remain the top challenges in regaining public trust.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/151 published on 18 November 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.