A man talks with his wife and daughter from behind a barricade inside a blocked neighborhood in Hanoi on 24 August, 2021 during the government-imposed lockdown to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

A man talks with his wife and daughter from behind a barricade inside a blocked neighborhood in Hanoi on 24 August, 2021 during the government-imposed lockdown to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

Vietnam: Turning the Tables on Covid-19

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Vietnam, which enjoyed a relatively fuss-free year fighting Covid-19 in 2020, has had to re-assess its strategy and adopt a newer approach to living with the coronavirus.

In 2020, Vietnam was Southeast Asia’s poster child when it came to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2021, however, that has all changed — the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus put the country on the back foot. 

As of April, the number of active cases and deaths have started to climb. As of 25 August 2021, the country saw 381,310 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 9,349 deaths since early 2020. Ho Chi Minh City, which is the locomotive of the economy, bore the brunt of the cases.

This state of affairs has prompted the authorities to re-assess their approach. As it stood, a mix of tight border closures and rigorous enforcement of social distancing did not prove effective enough to stem the latest wave driven by the Delta variant. They had to consider new approaches and implement a strategy based on living with SARS-CoV-2.

In other words, Vietnam — like Singapore — has decided to go down the path of suppression rather than elimination of the virus. The former involves a three-pronged policy mix — increasing vaccination rates to buy time for the healthcare system; zoning, testing and isolation, as well as the use of surveillance systems to collect huge amounts of data. It was assessed that an elimination strategy (as practiced by countries such as New Zealand) proved to be highly futile, given the high economic costs involved.

Vaccines are seen as a strategic weapon and the first step towards a return to a new normal. As of 24 August, only 2 per cent of Vietnam’s population has been fully vaccinated, with another 14.2 per cent partially vaccinated. Increasing the level of vaccinations is critical to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, minimise deaths and reduce the pressure on the healthcare system.

Vietnam aims to have 150 million doses for about 70 per cent of the population by the end of 2021. On 13 August, Vietnam established a Government Working Group on vaccine diplomacy. The working group is responsible for mobilising external aid for vaccines, therapeutic drugs, medical products. It will also aim to get interested countries like the US, Japan, and Russia to transfer technology to produce vaccines, and drugs from partners. 

What is more challenging for the authorities is to get the production of vaccines onshore. Vietnam is seeking to ramp up its domestic vaccine supply by developing ‘Made in Vietnam’ vaccines. These include Nanocovax, which is currently in Phase III trials. 

… a mix of tight border closures and rigorous enforcement of social distancing did not prove effective enough to stem the latest wave driven by the Delta variant. They had to consider new approaches and implement a strategy based on living with SARS-CoV-2.

Secondly, Vietnam continues to enforce a strategy of zoning, screening, tracing and isolating Covid-19 cases. This is done in tandem with implementing lockdowns and social distancing in high-risk areas, enforcing isolation of new and asymptomatic cases at home and prioritising hospitalisation for Covid-19 cases with severe symptoms and underlying diseases.

Such suppression methods are still the number one priority in Vietnam today. On 23 August, Ho Chi Minh City beefed up anti-Covid-19 measures, requiring residents to ‘stay where they are’, isolating homes from homes, streets from streets, and wards from wards. The plan is to get the country’s commercial hub to reopen before 15 September. Understandably, this will have to depend on whether the authorities would be able to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths before then.

Lastly, Vietnam is using technology to build sentinel surveillance systems to collect information about Covid-19 cases and reduce pressure on the health system. Vietnam needs strict implementation of epidemic prevention and control directives so that the population complies with the so-called 5K principle — which comprises wearing facemasks, personal hygiene, safe distancing, reducing the number of gatherings and health declarations.

As the country seeks to move to a situation of living with the coronavirus, other measures will also be necessary. Promulgated policies should be clear, transparent, and avoid sowing confusion among the public. The media should be encouraged to convey messages properly and sufficiently. In addition, emergency support packages for unskilled workers, the poor, and the homeless need to be deployed quickly without being encumbered by complex administrative procedures.

In essence, Vietnam’s relatively successful story of fighting Covid-19 in 2020 is no longer relevant in the current context. The focus now is implementing the three-pronged strategy, so that Vietnam can come to grips with living with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This will be critical in helping save millions of lives and livelihoods. 

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