Has Vietnam turned a corner in its coronavirus fight?

Girls walks in a overpass as they wear protective masks in the street amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Jan 29, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters file

On the day Hanoi re-emerged from coronavirus lockdown, Tran Khanh Thien went out for a ride.

After nearly two months of movement restrictions, the Vietnamese capital’s streets were once again lined with parked cars and filled with the noise of roaring motorbike engines.

Restaurants and shops were open, the 27-year-old entrepreneur said of his outing on Tuesday (Sept 21), though there were still plenty of signs urging social distancing and “100 per cent of people” were wearing masks.

Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam’s virus epicentre more than 1,500km to the south by road – most residents, like single mother Le Hoai Minh, are still forbidden to leave their homes, even to shop for food.

Vietnam police officers inspect authorised travel documents of commuters at a check point during the first day of the extended lockdown in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sept 6, 2021. PHOTO: Reuters 

Movement restrictions in the southern city have made life difficult for the employee of a financial company, who said she had struggled to adjust and found herself still wanting “to go out and go to work like before”.

Making matters worse, the hospital she used to regularly attend for check-ups – having recently recovered from cancer – now only admits Covid-19 patients.

Vietnam has turned a corner in its fight against the coronavirus and can now “see light at the end of the tunnel”, Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Truong Son said in a statement on Wednesday, with Covid-19 deaths and case numbers trending downwards and the number of patients needing critical care coming under control.

But there is a stark contrast between Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of the country when it comes to containing the spread of the coronavirus, with the metropolis accounting for around half of Vietnam’s more than 728,000 cases and 80 per cent of 18,017 deaths – almost all of which have occurred in the past four months.

Residents of the country’s southern business hub are mostly confined to their homes – except in three districts that have met the health ministry’s outbreak control criteria, where people can go out to buy food once per week, and in some areas where outdoor exercise is allowed.

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Earlier this month, the city’s restaurants were given the green light to start selling takeaways again after a two-month suspension, and inter-district delivery services resumed soon afterwards – but staff shortages, high prices, shipping issues and a lack of customers are all hitting profits.

Movement restrictions have been in place since late May, with the city announcing their extension multiple times – the latest until Oct 1. 

More than 77,000 hospital beds have been set aside for Covid-19 patients in the city of nine million people, including 3,882 in intensive care units, with those who are asymptomatic or exhibit only mild symptoms treated at home or in centralised isolation facilities.

Dr Duong Duy Khoa, a volunteer frontline health worker in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most affected districts of Binh Tan, said he had noticed the numbers of cases and deaths in the city declining recently “likely because vaccines are starting to work”.

“The capacity and quality of Ho Chi Minh City’s medical system is very good. There are also many medical workers and help coming from other places. But there was no conductor to coordinate the resources [at first],’’ he said.

Khoa, a respiratory specialist at the Ho Chi Minh City Medicine and Pharmacy University who began volunteering as a frontline worker in July, recalled weeks when the city’s health care system was over capacity – with patients unable to get the hospital treatment they needed before it was too late.

This not only eroded people’s faith in the medical system, but also had a negative impact on doctors’ mental health, he said, leaving medical professionals to “re-evaluate ourselves to see if we had done a good job or not and how we can do our job better”.

Khoa had first-hand experience of this himself when an old woman and younger man he was caring for both died from Covid-19. “I was in pain because their families were in pain,” he said.

As the biggest single beneficiary of foreign-direct investment, with accumulated capital of more than US$49 billion (S$66 billion) as of August, Ho Chi Minh City – which contributes about one-third of Vietnam’s entire state budget – has been under intense pressure from both domestic and foreign firms to reopen.

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Last week, 14 Vietnamese business associations, representing key export sectors such as apparel, timber and seafood, wrote to the government with a list of 49 suggested amendments to current restrictions citing a need to move away from the country’s current elimination strategy towards “living with Covid-19”.

Le Dang Doanh, a retired senior economic adviser to five former prime ministers of Vietnam, said he believed Ho Chi Minh City would cautiously reopen on Oct 1 with some pandemic control measures still in place.

“Currently, experts are discussing and making suggestions [to the government] about methods and measures to prevent the epidemic that are less restrictive to production, business and people’s normal activities,” he said, adding that local authorities needed to support businesses in practical ways so they could operate, create jobs and pay taxes.

Ho Chi Minh City has given almost all of its residents at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine , but Le Dang Doanh stressed this should not be seen as a “silver bullet” given the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant that has sparked outbreaks even in highly vaccinated countries.

“So a [first-dose] vaccination rate of over 70 per cent has been achieved, but public cooperation, the participation of local authorities and social organisations are still needed for epidemic prevention,” he said. “The lesson for the central government and local authorities is to make in-time analysis and draw [from that] necessary measures – what was true yesterday may be outdated today.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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