Editors Note: This Situation Report was delayed for several days because countries like Vietnam led us to reassess what’s currently happening in Southeast Asia. We started deeply skeptical that Vietnam and other countries reported COVID-19 numbers could be as low as they were being reported. We are now far more optimistic for reasons that will be detailed in forthcoming article.
On 1 February, Vietnam was one of the earliest countries outside of China to enact an emergency ordinance that closed non-essential businesses and schools, and disseminate concerns about COVID-19. Thus far, the strategy has worked with an official tally of 268 cases to date (16 April) – of those, a remarkable 169 have been released, with another 99 still being treated. Though the information environment in Vietnam is strictly controlled like Laos and Cambodia, the evidence to date suggests the First Wave of Chinese imports to Vietnam were mostly discovered and community outbreak suppressed.
From February to March cases only rose from ten to sixteen. While their zero reported deaths might seem fabricated, it is in line with a presumed time-adjusted case/fatality rates with a number that size 3-4 weeks ago. Vietnam’s confirmed case numbers started rising exponentially in early march, nearly doubling between March 6th and 10th as the Second Wave of American, European, and British imported cases were detected. The situation stabilized by April 5th at 240 cases, plateaued at 269, and the country has now seen ten plus days of new cases in the single digits at the time of writing.
While there are likely more cases than the 266 officially reported, multiple factors –, tourist activity, timelines for Vietnam closing borders and outbreaks elsewhere, lockdown models, and social dynamics – provide that the numbers reflect a near realistic scenario on the ground, or at least reasoning why there is not mass hospitalization. While reasonable questions for Vietnam’s official count remains, the lack of intentional cover-up does not mean there is unintentional coverup.
The first wave began in Vietnam when two patients, a man from Wuhan visiting his son who was consequently infected, were confirmed on 23 January. The next day the Emergency Epidemic Prevention Centre was activated, as four more cases, all people visiting or returning home from Wuhan, tested positive. On 1 February a receptionist who had come into contact with case one and two would become the first domestic case after displaying symptoms and testing positive. The same day the government announced an epidemic declaration, closing borders with China, restricting visas, and shuttering the operations of Vietnam airlines within China. As seven cases were within the Son Loi Commune (Binh Xuyen District), the government placed the 10,600 who call the village home in lockdown. Two days later, schools and exams nationwide were postponed until the end of March (a date which has since been set to indefinite). Through the end of February, 16 people in total would test positive; all would recover by 25 February.
Since most visitors from Wuhan were in the northern part of Vietnam, and eventually in Binh Xuyen District, it is very likely that most cases were contained inside the lockdown. The government traced 373 contacts inside of Son Loi Commune, aiding the lockdown measures, and eventually stopping the spread of the first wave. As seen in other countries that experienced SARS in 2003, reports from the Commune also indicate people were strictly abiding by the lockdown measures, effectively stopping incidental spread from any pre-symptomatic cases. The geography of the Son Loi may have assisted as well – it’s a rural commune in an already rural district, which may be a factor in an initially lower spread rate.
The lockdown ended on 3 March, 20 days after the last reported case. With the reduction in cases, Vietnam had effectively prevented the first wave due to a combination of early lockdowns, border closures, tracing second and third contacts, and effective spread of information. The effective spread of information is a factor that cannot be left out of the government’s plans to combat the spread of COVID-19. In the beginning of February, social media posts began to spread ready concern about the impending virus, giving rise to alarmed buying. The government stepped in at that point, and began to establish official channels on Facebook, about which half the population is on, and in traditional information circles for rural communities. In March, an NCOVI app was launched for easier access to official information and for the reporting of health. The government also began heavily fining people who were profiteering and scalping masks or other sanitation equipment. Human Right’s observers inside of the country have also reported they are being closely monitored amidst rumours that those who have been caught spreading “fake information” or “disinformation” have been arrested.
Regardless of the positive numbers in the first wave, because of past incidents, Communist Party of Vietnam critics have been highly skeptical of these numbers. However, the same nationalism that has been used to fuel cover-ups in the past, such as the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel spill, appears to have been successfully harnessed to build solidarity and have the public follow strict social distancing measures. It appears to have worked. The strong anti-China sentiment – which sometimes stems to racism and not just government ideology – and rivalry between the two countries also made the border closure an easy decision. Citizens are very aware of tensions with China, after maritime conflict that has, until late 2019, grown considerably bitter.
Even if case numbers are higher than given (as is the case nearly everywhere), it unlikely that the First Wave outbreak deviated from the overall trend showing a small community outbreak that was quickly contained. Ho Chi Minh City, which has seen only 54 cases, has a limit of 900 beds – or 10 beds for every 100,000 people. Ho Chi Minh City may also have avoided the first wave as most travelers to/from Wuhan reside in the north, and are usually employed in rural jobs. Further, the Tan Son Nhat International Airport sees 3.344 million travelers a month. An outbreak would have still been spotted in Ho Chi Minh due to the sheer volume of traffic – hence, revolving back to the point that Vietnam’s early lockdowns were completed along the right timeline for the officially reported numbers to be broadly accurate.
Assuming the first wave of outbreaks originating from China was stopped due to the timeline of lockdowns is reasonable – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau all saw the same results due to their early social distancing and travel restriction measures. The second wave, arriving from Europe and the United States, being for all effective measures halted (at time of writing), demands more explanation. Vietnam repeated the same First Wave playbook when the Second Wave was detected.
A key development point was patient 17, who developed symptoms in early March, but was not tested until 6 March due to undisclosed travel to Europe. Two hundred people who had been on her flight, lived on her street, or were in close contact with her, were subsequently quarantined. This case was also in the densely populated capital of Hanoi, which re-sparked panic and concern throughout the country. Several other people on the same flight as patient 17 would later test positive. Patient 18 was a recent returnee from the epicenter of Daegu, South Korea – he was immediately isolated upon returning, as well as everyone else on the flight. The second cluster of wave 2 started with patient 34, who had flown from the United States through Korea and Qatar. Seventeen other patients would eventually be connected to the 34th, a testament to the extreme measures of testing, tracing, and quarantining the government was taking on incoming cases. Two weeks after the second wave started, Vietnam escalated from zero active cases to 75.
The concern regarding community transmission was palpable, with the central government spreading messages of concern throughout the community, urging extreme social distancing measures in Hanoi. Just as the community cooperation was key in controlling the first wave, their cooperation was key to controlling the second wave. However, more intricately important is the timeline of flight closures. On February 11th, South Korea issued a “Do not travel warning,” for Vietnam and on February 29th the visa-free program with South Korea was temporarily suspended. Korea would reach 3,150 cases that day. The next stage was on 7 March when health declarations were required for all incoming travelers. Vietnam halted air travel to and from France on 9 March, just as they reached 1,412 cases. Flights to and from the United Kingdom were halted on March 15th. Russia – the country with the sixth highest tourist population in Vietnam – closed their borders on 18 March. Four days later, Vietnam halted all foreign-nationals and current visa holders, mandating that any diplomatic missions would also have to go through a fourteen-day quarantine. The same day, the globe reached 337,000 cases. Vietnam also closed its border with Cambodia in this period when they declared their first community infection.
While the second wave was arriving from Europe, other countries – such as Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia – were starting to see exports and imports among one another, even more concerningly Malaysia and Cambodia. Vietnam, however, was not seeing as many imports and no reported exports except early suspicion that US Navy sailors brought COVID19 back to the USS Theodore Roosevelt during a port visit to Da Nang on March 5th. The Navy now believes flight crews brought it the aircraft carrier. There was also concern about a steady stream of Malaysian migrant workers in Singapore, Thailand’s centrality as regional tourism hub, and Indonesia and Malaysia are communities intertwined with one another exposing Vietnam to great risk of Southeast Asian imports. As with European and American tourists, it is likely that early travel advisories from the First Wave, warning about the risks of Vietnam travel, sharply curtailed the number of Southeast Asian, European, and American imports into the country for the Second Wave.
The most prominent case from Malaysia tested positive on 16 March, the same day masks became mandatory in public. The patient was experiencing symptoms of a cold upon returning from the Islamic pilgrimage to Tabligh jamaat. He continued to attend the Jamiul Mosque in Saigon before a second doctor’s appointment, who would recommend a COVID-19 test. Several other cases were connected to the patient, while three other Muslims returning from the same event tested positive later in the week, one who had broken quarantine recommendations. The cases initiated anti-Islamic rhetoric in southern Vietnam as concerns rose that the local community was infected. The Saigon Mosque would be quarantined and shuttered on 18 March, resulting in the quarantine of all his close contacts. Van Lam village, where the quarantine measures were broken, would also be put on lockdown the same day.
The strict quarantine measures are another reason for the low numbers. Not only have the people connected to clusters been isolated, entire villages have been put on lockdown to isolate the spread. The government has taken a firefighting approach, attempting to box in the virus in villages, and prevent it from leaking. In early March, the government had approved 22 testing sites across the country, while preparing military quarantine sites. By 23 March, 50,000 people were quarantined in villages or military camps. Ha Loi, a village with 11,000 people outside of Hanoi, was put on isolated lockdown on 11 April. On 15 April, the government announced 12 provinces would extend lockdowns for another seven days, again, with the concern being that even an small rise in cases would quickly overwhelm the weak healthcare system. Community mobility reports from Google supports claims that quarantines, lockdown, and healthy fear have kept Vietnamese people at home, and away from the public since February. Compared to other Southeast nations on Google’s Mobility Report, Vietnam is leading in avoiding traditional gathering points.
The overall picture is one in which Vietnam successfully contained a First Wave outbreak, was hit with a Second Wave like other Asian countries but smaller in scale, and up to this point have successfully contained every cluster uncovered. There are risks, however, that it might not be detected if it is spreading through rural communities.
Despite COVID-19 devastating economies around the globe, the Vietnam economy continued to grow, albeit at lower than estimated rates. Q1 GDP consumption increased 3.07 percent (year-to-year), although agriculture harvests faltered alongside industrial and constructions. 18,600 businesses would halt their enterprises, while another 12,000 would file for closure – however, the closure filing rate was down year-to-year, likely due to the 26 percent increase of temporary halts in business practices as the opportunity is taken to merely halt operations instead of close. Exports and imports were also dramatically affected to do temporary border closure for material goods that have globally changed in dizzying fashion. The quarter one results have put a damper on what economists expected to be a sparkling year for Vietnam. If Vietnam continues to control the economy, they are likely to have a better year than most countries. Although stocks fell 31 percent, investors see the government as responsive, and are confident they can be a source of production as some US corporations turn to Vietnam over China for production.
On the micro-level, however, more drastic measures show a bleak situation. Less food is being exported, over concerns of the global supply chain, while the central government will lose the equivalent of 7.6 Billion USD in cancelled taxes. Production may continue to fall as corporations see less global consumption, leading to a slow or complete halt of certain products, such as Toyota’s vehicular line. The Ministry of Industry and Trade will also now allocate the supply of raw material for manufacturing companies.
The result of much of the concern, chiefly being founded in the unknown, has been thousands unemployed and without income they rely on day-to-day. The government has promised to supply job training and additional programs for financial support. With supply-chains questionable for the foreseeable future, companies will have to create mitigation strategies to survive the unknown. With the increased support of citizens, it will also remain a question how committed Vietnam’s central government is to supporting citizens. People in lockdown are having their daily wages paid by the government, while more generous businesses have set up free rice ATMs for those who cannot afford food. Nguyen Man Hung is behind the project, staging 10 tons of rice for people to take. On the first day, over 700 people took up his generosity for a total of 2.3 tons of rice.
The domestic business landscape may be the first to return, pending a successful clearance of lockdowns, as Vietnamese Airlines is set to commence domestic flights in the coming week. One of the key sectors domestic businesses must immediately solve is the energy output. Vietnam is under a pending energy crisis as consumption increases without future investments. U.S. businesses were staged to invest in a solution when, because of COVID-19 implications, they pulled back earlier this year for an indefinite time. Much of the forecasted increase in GDP was based on foreign investments for 2020 that would have provided infrastructure solutions that had been stopping key foreign investments in other sectors.
Vietnam’s trajectory for the immediate economic plan may not last long, and with the pandemic still in relatively early stages, delays in infrastructure could lead to an extended unemployment problem for those at or below the poverty line. The government will need to stay committed to helping their rural communities, even if it means re-defining the economic plan. Case growth may soon be halted, but with new “fake news” fines taking a quarter to half a year’s pay from workers, a dip in conditions – economically or medically – for these rural communities may not be readily expressed to the outside world.