While the U.S. death toll from the current COVID-19 pandemic surges to 137,000 and infections soar to 3.4 million, Hanoi’s measured control of the crisis establishes Vietnam as an outlier success in the battle against the pandemic. With only 354 reported cases and no deaths, the country’s containment record can be attributed to decisive early pre-Tet holiday alerts to its citizens, international travel bans, compulsory face masks, village-wide quarantines, a serosurveillance network and advance zoonotic infections research.
Ten years ago, Vietnam was identified as an epicenter of emerging infectious diseases. Since 50 per cent of its 96 million citizens live in rural areas with daily contact with animal livestock, Vietnam’s epidemiologists, along with international scientists, established the Vietnam Initiative on Zoonotic Infections (VIZIONS) in 2012.
At the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, situated on nearly five hectares in Ho Chi Minh City’s crowded District 5, scientists established a hospital disease surveillance program to characterize novel infections, along with a high-risk sentinel zoonosis program that monitors the transfer of pathogens between animals and humans. This state-of-the art research lab was initially set up during the SARS 2002-2003 health crisis.
To be clear, Vietnam’s rapid response to Covid-19 was triggered because of its previous experience with viruses, including cases of avian influenza between 2004 and 2010. The facts reveal that their history with zoonotic infections and preexisting infrastructure enabled appropriate and successful action.
Dr. Dennis Carroll, an infectious-disease expert, formerly at USAID, who led the agency’s response to the H5N1 outbreak, established PREDICT. This project investigated and catalogued potential disease threats to people living near wildlife, with a specific focus on viruses. For decades his voice has informed government science policy planners about the threat of zoonotic spillover, or more simply put, the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.
“While the U.S. has done everything wrong in response to COVID-19, Vietnam has done everything right,” says Carroll, who currently heads up the Global VIROME project, a 10-year collaborative scientific initiative to discover unknown zoonotic viral threats.
According to an article in The Economist, PREDICT operated for just over a decade its before funding disappeared. What’s interesting is that Vietnam understood the importance of science cooperation by engaging their epidemiologists with local teams in 30 countries in collecting over 170,000 samples from people and wild animals; mainly non-human primates, bats, and rodents.
This science-led effort resulted in the identification of 1,200 new viruses that scientists believe had the potential to result in pandemics. This included at least 160 potential strains of coronavirus.
Although still regarded by many as an emerging market, Vietnam understands the value of science in shaping health policy. Its record stands in sharp contrast to the United States. During the Trump administration, the role of science has been diminished and the administration has not only stopped funding of science-driven research but has openly challenged scientific findings related to public health and the environment.
At the start of the year, Hanoi’s Ministry of Science and Technology hosted a meeting with virologists to encourage the development of diagnostic tests and to immediately set up contact-tracing measures as key elements for the containment of the virus.
The contrast between the U.S. and Vietnam in their messaging is starkly different. While Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has failed and fumbled any kind of centralized COVID-19 plan, Hanoi offered a pitch-perfect coordinated messaging blueprint for the nation with regular broadcasts, print media, street posters, not seen since on this mobilization scale since the Vietnam War.
Vietnam’s transparency and the effective use of social media has been met with trust from citizens, while increasing numbers of Americans remain confused from White House mixed messages on COVID-19. Meanwhile, Vietnamese officials were quick to develop evidenced-based guidelines and trained healthcare and lab professionals to implement the national guidelines down to the local level.
There’s one startling paradox during this pandemic, that is, Vietnam’s complete embrace of social media portals and online public health web-based resources to inform citizens of the health crisis, since Facebook and YouTube have at times been banned by Hanoi’s internet gatekeepers.
For social media advocates, Facebook and super app, Zalo, stream to the more than 43 million young Vietnamese netizens, to inform and educate them on the need for hygiene measures to control the spread of the virus. For example, Vietnamese dancer Quang Dang’s handwashing song, “Ghen Co Vy,” or “Jealous Coronavirus” was broadly released as a public service announcement by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and quickly went viral.
Further evidence of Vietnam’s openness in its health policy responses rests with its scientists, who have figured prominently in a spate of COVID-19 articles. In the journal Sustainability, authors underscore the rise of Vietnamese researchers who have used preprints and perspectives on their personal Facebook accounts to inform the community. “For example, the Facebook posts by Tran Xuan Back—an Associate Professor of Johns Hopkins University based in Hanoi—had attracted nearly 14,000 views and hundreds of shares from the public.”
Vietnam’s empowered voice as the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) chair was evident at a virtual summit attributed largely to its superb handling of COVID-19, through their combination of targeted testing and an aggressive quarantine program.
The nation’s determined leadership to contain COVID-19 seems to be driving a growing regional pushback to China’s expansive maritime claims in the contested South China Sea, or the East Sea as Hanoi prefers to call it.
After all, Vietnam has a formidable record of repelling attacks that span from France’s colonialism, to the Vietnam War, and to China’s failure to cross into Vietnam’s northern border in 1979.
While the pandemic has shown no respect for borders, Vietnam’s history once again is enviable.
There are no winners during a pandemic, and yet, Hanoi’s preparedness and response measures have created trust among its own citizens towards their government; something sorely missing in the U.S. In a seemingly lost year for so many, Hanoi has succeeded in, once again, stopping an enemy at its border.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.