People planning to return to their hometowns wait at a checkpoint to leave Ho Chi Minh City in the early hours of October 1, 2021, following the easing of strict Covid-19 coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for the past three months. (Photo: Chi Pi / AFP)

Vietnam’s Covid-19 Response: ‘Those above tell, those below do not heed.’

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Vietnam’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic has been affected by tensions between the central government and the provinces. More cooperation between the regions might help.

Before cases first became untraceable in May 2021, Vietnam had won global plaudits for its Covid-19 response. Yet by the end of the fourth Covid-19 wave in October, the Vice Head of the Board of People’s Petition, part of the Standing Committee of the Vietnamese National Assembly (VNA), publicly called for the dismissal of non-compliant local officials. He criticised their localism (cục bộ cát cứ), over-regulation, and non-compliance to a new resolution on nationwide zone classification and restrictions.

This tension between local and central governments in Vietnam has existed long before Covid-19. It even takes on a proverbial quality: ‘Those above tell, those below do not heed’ (trên bảo, dưới không nghe). The immediate impression of Vietnam as a one-party, monolithic, Communist state belies the reality that political authority has been dispersed more regionally throughout history. 

In Vietnam’s fragmented decentralisation, the central government sets the policy agenda and regulations, but local governments interpret and implement them, which depends on clarification from above or negotiations through political networks. Geographical origins matter in Vietnamese politics, particularly its ‘four pillars’ leadership model — the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the President, the Prime Minister, and the Chairperson of the VNA. The Prime Minister, for example, typically boasts of a background of good provincial governorship, as solid performances in their jurisdictions boost chances of promotion. 

The structuring of the VNA also lends itself to provincial interests. Although the CPV inserts members of central government agencies into local candidate lists, in principle all VNA seats represent local constituencies only (i.e. no NA member represents ministries). The VNA thus represents the interests of its 63 provinces better than national interests. Provinces would propose to the central government for infrastructure projects, such as airports or highways, for their jurisdictions at the expense of an economy of scale. This generates competition rather than cooperation or coordination among provinces over limited central resources. Conversely, local governments become risk-averse in times of high stakes, switching from selective implementation to rigid compliance to avoid repercussions. One such visible instance is the dramatic 2017 sidewalk cleanup ‘campaign’. Local officials, previously complicit in the illegal private appropriation of metropolitan sidewalks, aggressively ‘reclaimed’ it when the issue gained national attention. However, given the reactive nature of such local enforcement, whatever success the campaign enjoyed did not endure as the problem eventually returned.

Relying on a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy meant Vietnam was relatively slow in vaccine procurement — a problem which was exacerbated by constrained global supply. Continuing the strategy meant overstretching central control. Slippages in Covid-19 containment in May 2021 foreshadowed a fast-fatiguing central government and a corresponding return of provincial assertiveness.

This can first be seen in how the responsibility for securing vaccines was gradually dispersed to local governments. In June, the national government raised the possibility of provincial authorities procuring vaccines on their own, and encouraged this at the end of July. By mid-August, the Prime Minister resoundingly asked local authorities not to ‘depend on the centre’. Thus far, however, vaccines remain centrally distributed. 

With loosened central oversight, risk-averse provincial authorities began to over-regulate and forego coordination among themselves. This was the case for migrant workers fleeing Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong in July. They were either denied exit from these cities or entry to their home provinces. Enterprises and businesses suffered, with transport trucks and drivers stranded at provincial borders over provincial pandemic responses. One particularly notorious incident was the stoppage of a shipment of sanitary pads and diapers at the end of July. The North-South supply chain was interrupted by bureaucratic travel papers, vaccine requirements, congested checkpoints and testing facilities, causing a slowdown in goods transportation and businesses nationwide by the end of August.

Given their historical entrenchment, fragmented decentralisation and local-centre tension in Vietnam are politically sensitive issues to which there is no panacea. However, one underexplored area that merits greater attention is inter-provincial or local-to-local cooperation. 

It is worth pointing out that this pervasive lack of coordination between the centre and the provinces was already raised in a VNA session on 25 July. Yet it was only in October that the Prime Minister singled out this issue for harsh criticism. This was followed by the issuance of Resolution 128/NQ-CP and Decision 4800/QD-BYT that explicitly instructed uniform compliance against localism. That the issue persisted for months suggests that some provinces were not willing to coordinate, thus delaying central coordination to harmonise regulations. 

Given their historical entrenchment, fragmented decentralisation and local-centre tension are politically sensitive issues to which there is no panacea. However, one underexplored area that merits greater attention is inter-provincial or local-to-local cooperation. Coordination among local governments have been demonstrated to complement their governance, moderate resource constraints and reduce the burden of the central government. It also helps to minimise uncertainties in times of emergency, and enhance resilience in Covid-19 for both less developed and developed countries.

If the proverb ‘living with the flood’ (sống chung với lũ) underlies Vietnam’s current policy of ‘living with Covid-19’, the country could take cues from its diverse flood governance experience. Like early warning systems, regular consultation among neighbouring localities can enhance local policymaking and reduce uncertainties about future challenges. An adaptive flood governance that combines hierarchical and participatory mechanisms has been shown to be effective, albeit on a small scale, in that it facilitates the vertical and horizontal knowledge-sharing and long-term trust needed to cope with volatile environmental conditions. Such initiatives are admittedly absent on the interprovincial level, given the predominantly hierarchical governance in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the need for interprovincial flood governance has been noted by relevant professionals and precedents exist to illustrate that such cooperation is possible, even desired.

The pandemic has revived discussions about a ‘viral fear of responsibility’ (virus sợ trách nhiệm) and its institutional origins, suggesting the structural nature of these issues. Mutual learning should be institutionalised to enable effective interagency and interprovincial responses, which could then feed into the national system — a dynamic that undergirded the long-term success of more decentralised states. This can facilitate much-needed policy harmony while lessening local risk aversion and dependency on the centre.

As Vietnam strives towards resilience, it is imperative that its institutional rifts be mended. A cohesive defence against the oncoming Covid-19 mutations requires not only central dictates, but also communication and coordination among local authorities who bear the primary responsibility for on-the-ground implementation as well as the costs of Covid-19 firsthand.

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