Government and governance, Health | Asia, Southeast Asia

4 August 2020

Some commentators have lauded Vietnam for its effective response to the pandemic, but the Vietnamese model of containing the virus would be very difficult to replicate, Phuong Pham writes.

Considered one of the most successful Asian countries in the battle against the COVID-19, Vietnam has earned international praise for the efficacy of its pandemic response. So why has Vietnam been so successful, and what makes its achievements difficult to replicate elsewhere?

First of all, its geographic proximity with China has defied expectation and turned out to be an advantage for Vietnam in dealing with the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak.

Due to its border with China, it was very soon after COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan that Vietnam had its first two cases of the virus, a Chinese man travelling from Wuhan and his son, on 30 January.

This was earlier than most countries in Southeast Asia, and because it detected cases early, the Vietnamese government was able to take stringent measures to contain the spread of the virus much earlier too.

Moreover, thanks to its shared border with China, Vietnam was experienced in combatting outbreaks, as it was also the first country to get the SARS outbreak that occurred in China in 2003, under control.

Naturally, when geography is a distinctive factor in a policy success, it won’t be possible to transport that success to other environments.

Importantly too, Vietnam’s state apparatus has contributed to its successful COVID-19 strategy. In contrast to other democracies in Asia and the world that have more decentralised states, Vietnam has a relatively centralised system.

More on this: Public healthcare in Vietnam drops ‘the public’

In this regard, the government saw the use of its state apparatus to combat a pandemic as able to buttress the power of the governing Communist Party of Vietnam, and so was not hesitant to employ state power early and powerfully in response to COVID-19.

This state apparatus helped Vietnam to implement its strategy to combat COVID-19 without facing any opposition from the people. Specifically, it allowed Vietnam to implement a rigorous and large-scale lockdown policy and mandatory quarantine very quickly with very high compliance.

Indeed, while recently dealing with a potential second wave in Da Nang, central and local governments have been able to coordinate well in containing the virus: restricting people coming in and out of Da Nang, imposing social distancing to prevent community infections, as well as conducting compulsory virus screening and sterilisation in a massive scale.

This can be more difficult to achieve in countries with less centralised states, as the Victorian experience in Australia has demonstrated in recent weeks.

Vietnam has also been able to establish a strong surveillance system during the crisis, something that simply won’t fly in more liberal countries. Because of its high digital surveillance of the population, the government was able to undertake extensive contact tracing of those infected and suspected of infection, making the community less vulnerable to the virus.

Not only active cases, but also people who had second, third, and fourth levels of contact to even recovered cases were closely monitored and put under strict restrictions.

To supplement to its surveillance system, the Vietnamese government also rapidly mobilised health professionals, public security personnel, the military, and civil servants to implement tracing. People hiding their symptoms or spreading misinformation were also fined.

More on this: Japan’s pandemic response

There are countries that have similar powers to implement surveillance on their population, but among these, even with its lack of resources and healthcare budget, Vietnam has been the best in containing the pandemic. For example, South Korea also has a strong digital surveillance system, but it has 300 deaths so far, which is significantly higher than Vietnam, one of few countries with only a handful of coronavirus deaths.

Another factor that has made Vietnam especially successful in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak is its effective state messaging, which is ultimately built on a propaganda system. Amid the crisis, most countries have been attempting to educate their people on the severity of the virus, but in few places has this been more successful than Vietnam.

Its propaganda broadcasting system has been highly successful in the past, specifically in the Vietnam War, when it helped North Vietnam to reinforce its legitimacy and stir up anti-American sentiment, paving the way for its ultimate victory.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, this propaganda system was used again. First, it mobilised nationalism among people. The Prime Minister declared a war on the virus, claiming that “Every business, every citizen, every residential area must be a fortress to prevent the epidemic.”

This rhetoric touched a nerve among the people, binding them together to stand with their country and overcome the crisis. Indeed, the government’s fundraising campaign has successfully mobilised resources from the people, with millions of donations being sent via text message to be used in pandemic response.

The propaganda system was also helpful in Vietnamese community education. The government made use of the state-controlled media to broadcast messages about the pandemic on television and in newspapers, and kept its citizens updated on measures via text messages.

Thanks to this messaging, citizens have been kept well-aware of how the pandemic has been unfolding and what the government is doing to deal with the outbreak. On top of these more conventional methods, the Ministry of Health sponsored a Vietnamese handwashing song on YouTube, which has since gone global.

Photos of military soldiers and police have gone viral on social media in Vietnam too, with posters hailing them as national heroes. Government officials have also been lauded for their efforts to fight against the pandemic in national media, and the unquestioned backing of the state-influenced news has substantially assisted the government in building trust and achieving compliance, something that would be much harder to replicate in countries with a freer press.

There’s no doubt Vietnam has been a success story. That a country with an underdeveloped healthcare system and low incomes has been able to stave off the crisis has attracted much attention, and, if it can contain the small number of cases more recently emerging within its borders, Vietnam could gradually return to more or less business-as-usual.

Nevertheless, given its geographic, political, and social features, Vietnam’s model is something distinctive, and is not possible to achieve elsewhere. Above all, it demonstrates the importance of a tailored policy response to a crisis of any kind.

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