Vietnam is one of those rare countries that maintains it is largely free of the scourge of the new coronavirus pandemic, asserting it has not had a single related death to date.
Could that be true? Many Vietnamese scoff at official figures, saying they likely reflect efforts by the socialist government not to alarm the population about the extent of the health crisis.
As an Asahi Shimbun reporter assigned to cover Vietnam, I was intrigued by the following statement by a Japanese national who works in the country: “Even though I talked about the very few patients infected with the new coronavirus and the Vietnamese government’s tough measures to combat COVID-19, no one in Tokyo believed me.”
The virus outbreak that began raging on a global basis four months ago left Vietnam largely untouched, if official figures are to be believed, despite the country’s proximity to China, where the health crisis is believed to have started.
I decided to delve into this mystery, wondering what Japan could learn from Vietnam in terms of differences in ideology and the fact that the country imposed what many may consider to have been draconian isolation measures at the outset to combat the crisis.
IS VIETNAM TELLING THE TRUTH?
On April 23, the government relaxed restrictions that had been in place since April 1 on people going out. In the capital, as well as Ho Chi Minh city, restaurants and street vendors started to reopen. Taxis also reappeared, but in limited numbers.
No new cases of infection were confirmed between April 16 and April 23, when the tally of positive tests nationwide among the 96 million population came to just 268.
Of that figure, 220 infected patients, or roughly 80 percent of the total, had recovered without a single death. (As of May 27th, 2020, Vietnam records 327 infected patients, 278 had recovered)
On April 24, two new cases of infection involving Vietnamese who had returned from Japan two days earlier on a special flight were confirmed.
The first cases of infection involving a family from Wuhan in China, where the outbreak is widely thought to have originated, were reported Jan. 23.
By Feb. 13, the number of infected patients had increased to 16.
Japan as of Feb. 14 had 41 cases, excluding those who were aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined off Yokohama Port, and thus the number of infections is not included in Tokyo’s official tally.
At that point in the health crisis, there was little difference in the figures between the two countries, even though Vietnam shares a 1,400-kilometer-long border with China. Vietnam suspiciously seemed to have too few cases.
A Japanese expat here who is well-versed in Vietnamese politics offered this insight: “I personally think the government shows the correct figures to make its people share a sense of crisis.”
In contrast, Vietnamese contacts said that there is widespread disbelief in the official figures.
“The Vietnamese people do not trust the figures announced by the government,” said one source.
In spite of the low official infection rates, the government imposed strict measures, triggering suspicions that the actual figures were much higher.
On Feb. 1, the government halted commercial flights to and from China.
On Feb. 5, it started to refuse entry to foreign nationals who had been in China during the previous two weeks.
For its part, Japan began imposing strict entry rules for travelers from China on March 5, or one month later than Vietnam.
In Vietnam, it was also decided to delay the reopening of schools until the Lunar New Year holiday period ended. The reopening of schools was then repeatedly postponed.
As a result, almost all schools have remained closed since late January. My 9-year-old son, who transferred to a school here after I was assigned to Vietnam, attended classes for just four days before the Lunar New Year holidays. And since then, not at all.
On Feb. 13, an entire village near Hanoi was shut down after six residents were found to be infected.
Europe and the United States, meantime, experienced an explosive surge in COVID-19 cases. Antibody tests being done in some countries suggested that the actual number of infected patients was likely dozens of times higher than announced figures.
In Japan, calls have grown for the government to expand testing. Critics contend that Japan has woefully underestimated the scale of the epidemic.
It seems feasible, then, that Vietnam has more cases of infection than the government is letting on.
Despite differences in political systems, countries around the world face the common challenge of defeating this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
With this in mind, it surely behooves them to be transparent in releasing accurate official figures so people around the world are in no doubt about the gravity of the crisis.
“We are not in a situation where the number of pneumonia patients is increasing at medical facilities,” said 46-year-old Hiroshi Chiba, a Japanese doctor working at a private clinic in Hanoi. “I think the Vietnamese government had been taking the harshest measures since early February, and they have proved to be effective.”
NO SYMPTOMS, BUT FORCED ISOLATION
The number of infections did not rise for the following three weeks after Vietnam marked its 16th case on Feb. 13. But after a person who returned from Europe was confirmed to be infected with the virus on March 6, the number started to increase again.
As of March 21, the government required all arrivals at airports to self-isolate. The following day, it effectively barred foreign nationals from entering the country.
Since April 1, restrictions on going out mainly applied to large cities, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in the south.
After the number of infected people entering from Europe started to increase, the government moved aggressively to isolate infected patients, as well as those they had come into contact with and people arriving from abroad, in hospitals, homes and military facilities.
To Japanese sensibilities, the Vietnamese government’s ability to force people to self-isolate even if they don’t have symptoms might seem harsh, and only possible because the country is under socialist rule.
As an expat, I felt anxious that the government was able to take such forceful emergency steps.
But even democratic countries such as Britain, France and the United States began curtailing people’s behavior from mid-March by applying penalties. So, differences in ideology might not be a big deal after all when countries are confronted by a crisis such as this one.
In fact, social distancing seems to be the most effective way to combat the pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization, as of 2016, Japan had 24.1 doctors per 10,000 people while Vietnam had only 8.3 doctors. Vietnam faces a critical shortage of medical resources to combat the crisis.
Socialist ideology turns out not to be the reason for the steps Vietnam has taken. Rather, the measures were deemed to be the most effective way to contain the virus with limited medical and economical resources.
FIRST NATION TO EXTERMINATE SARS
After the SARS outbreak flared in 2003, the Vietnamese government took similar measures.
Initially, group infections occurred in private hospitals. A total of 63 people tested positive, and five patients died. The government traced infection routes and strictly isolated infected people and those they had come into contact with. Vietnam declared it was the first country to exterminate SARS from its territory.
The government implemented a package of emergency economic measures to deal with the crisis, allocating 62 trillion dong (280 billion yen, or $2.6 billion) in the state budget. The funds allowed for 1.8 million dong to be distributed monthly to each unemployed person between April and June.
However, the assistance was not sufficient to rescue those who suffered immense financial hardship from being forced to stay home.
Unlike Japan, Vietnam does not have a comprehensive administrative services system.
“We do not know how many people can really get the payments,” said a Vietnamese acquaintance.
The attitude of not relying on state handouts to pull through might be a reflection of the toughness of the national character. But it may also reflect a reality that people cannot reply on the government when things get really tough.
With an excess of 15,000 cases, it will take Japan some time before the number of infected people matches the level of Vietnam.
Until the pandemic is contained, many people in Japan may find that their lives get tougher if the government is forced to extend its requests for people to stay home and businesses to suspend their activities.
A single country’s efforts to end this scourge will not be sufficient. It will require a global commitment. Until then, people will remain restricted in crossing international borders and the big question of when things will return to a state of normalcy on a worldwide basis remains elusive.
Reporting by KOSUKE SO/ Staff Writer @ Asahi Shimbun