What the West Can Learn From Vietnam’s Response to Covid-19

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@linhLinh Dao Smooke

I co-run Hacker Noon with my husband. Mostly, we just chase after our daughter Norah.

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I remember it was during the last week of January when my American family & friends were all at a dinner table discussing what was then a foreign, "China-contained" new disease called Coronavirus. The virus had infected about ~1000 people worldwide, 500 alone in Wuhan, China, and 1-2 cases in the US. I told the group that just days ago, the Vietnamese government ordered all schools to be closed for the foreseeable future, as would be many "non-essential" public gatherings and businesses. People were on high alert. Masks and hand sanitizers were severely out of stock.
"How many cases are current there?" - someone asked.
"8" - I said.
There was an audible gasp. Wow. Paranoid much? 8 cases and the whole country was already under a semi lockdown?
To be honest, I was just as surprised. By then my mom in Vietnam had been sending me daily messages for weeks, warning me of things like "avoid large gatherings", "stock up on your essentials", "reconsider daycare for Norah if you can", all of which I brushed off as overreaction from my typically worried-about-everything Asian Mom.
"Good thing we don't have many Chinese tourists here!" - concluded someone, at the end of said dinner table.
For the next few weeks, we wouldn't hear much about the virus from the US government (or the general American public), besides a few stories detailing the racism towards people of Chinese/Asian descent.
Fast forward just about a month after, what we thought was a "Chinese disease" was declared "a global pandemic" by the WHO, soon after Italy went under a nation-wide lockdown, and the US declared a National Emergency, with number of cases worldwide passing 200k from 100k in just under a week, with over 9k deaths, overwhelming many country's health infrastructures. As a global economic recession is looking more and more inevitable, no country, the US included, can afford to pretend that it's just an exclusive "Asian import" anymore. The trajectory is looking bad for the US and worse for Europe.
Now as many eyes are turned to Asia, the continent that's no longer considered the epicenter of the outbreak (it is now Europe, with over 60% of total active cases), I would like to spotlight Vietnam as a country at the forefront of this global fight against an invisible enemy. Not Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, or South Korea (or as I like to put it, Western media's favorite examples of "good" Asian countries). Yes, those countries have been doing spectacular job containing the virus. But so is Vietnam.
Yes, Vietnam, the country that borders China. Yes, Vietnam, the 15th most populated country with 97M people. Yes, Vietnam the communist, totalitarian country in most Western narratives. It is this country that has successfully kept the number of cases at 76 (as of March 19, 2020) and fatality at zero, over two months after the first cases were reported. And it's not because of underreporting. The West has a lot to learn from this tiny little country south of China, namely: 1. fast, efficient, affordable test kits 2. 14-day mandatory quarantine and 3. transparency via technology and social media.

One: fast, efficient, affordable test kits

Did you know? Vietnam is the first country to develop a fast, efficient, AND affordable test kit in one month that the WHO says should have taken 4 years to develop. The test, developed by a group of Vietnamese researchers from the Institute of Biotechnology under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, costs about $15, and is capable of returning results within 80 minutes, with a specificity of 100% and sensitivity of 5 copies per reaction.
Here's an account of one of my friends who gets tested in Vietnam:
"I went to one of the 30 testing centers available in Vietnam. They swabbed my nose and mouth. About 2-3 hours later, they let me know the preliminary results. In my case, it was negative. I then waited for a few more days for the Institute of Epidemiology in Hanoi to confirm the final result, which was also negative. It was quick, efficient, and painless."
The test kits were so efficient and easy to use, that as of last week, 20 countries and territories in the world are looking to purchase tens of thousands of test kits from Vietnam. Vietnam's current production capacity is 3,600 kits/day, but the country could make 10,000 kits a day, and triple the capacity if needed, said a representative.
All I see in our news is how the US is facing a testing shortage (how?) and the first few test kits developed by the CDC were faulty (really?) Nothing about Vietnam test kits, of course.

Two: 14 day mandatory quarantine

As US closes its border to China & Europe, the country's been facing criticism regarding these "too little too late" actions. The reason: the disease has already been present within the US borders, and the virus knows no boundaries. The community spread will only get worse, even with these closing border actions.
Vietnam, on the other hand, has been mandating 14-day quarantine for all foreigners as well as returning Vietnamese from Covid-19 epicenters, on top of restricting travels from these regions. At first, these applied to people coming from China & South Korea. Of late, the mandate has been extended to people coming back from all of Europe, the UK and the US.
Here's the kicker: the Vietnamese government provided 100% of Vietnamese citizens and foreigners under quarantine with shelter, food and medical attention during these 14 days. They have been for the past 2 months.
"Suddenly it all becomes very human, we’re guests in a country doing their best to protect themselves and are extending us that courtesy. Such is the good nature of Vietnam."
Outside, everything is peaceful. The location is quiet, the soldiers work tirelessly to sterilize the rooms daily, log our temperature and clear out our bins. They live here to help their country and despite what they might have heard, they’re friendly and caring. So far, this feels more like a holiday camp than a quarantine. In our room, we share snacks, fruit, and start getting deliveries from loved ones."
I personally know a lot of friends coming back from South Korea, the UK and the US, most of whom study-abroad students whose spring term are disrupted. One common theme shared among these friends are just how grateful and protected they feel for these 14 days.
Last week, this 12-hour vlog of a Vietnamese traveler who returned from Milan, titled "How "scary" is the local quarantine area?" went viral. The video described how quail and "not scary at all" the area is, bringing peace of mind to the thousands of Vietnamese students who will soon be returning to Vietnam as schools and universities in the US are cancelling classes one by one.
These 14 day measures are not only available for those returning to Vietnam from abroad, but also people who are already in the country. Vietnam's case number 17th, a Vietnamese heiress who returned to Hanoi from Milan, was suspected to have dodged quarantine at the airport. Her entire street was then disinfected, its people went under 14-day quarantine, with food & shelter as well as medical staff provided by the government.


Three: transparency via technology and social media

The US has a long way to catch up with Vietnam when it comes to transparency of information regarding the spread of Coronavirus. Here's a screenshot of an opinion piece I wrote to my local newspaper, the Vail Daily, that did not get accepted for publication last week:
It's been 14 days since the first case of Covid-19 was announced in Colorado, and we had less information than ever with regard to:
  1. how many actual cases there are
  2. the whereabouts of these cases (which cities, which neighborhoods)
  3. general demographic information about the cases.
This government site used to carry case-by-county information just under a week ago. According to the Colorado government, testing will be more available by private companies, and demographic data will be presented here. Yet, when you click on it, the site freezes about 4 out of 5 times.
What you see when clicking on the CO Government site on Covid-19 data.
Let's take a look at how the Vietnamese government and media have been treating information regarding Covid-19.
  • Whenever there's a new case, the Ministry of Health (MoH) online portal immediately publicizes the case to all major news outlets and the general publics with details including: where the cases are, how they get infected, what actions are to be taken. Information is to be wide-spread across social media and television channels, even texted to your phone via a hotline.
  • The MoH and Ministry of Information & Media's sponsored mobile app, called NCOVI is extremely friendly and easy to use. The app allows you to: 1. submit health & travel information so you can get yourself tested 2. learn about the "hotspots" within the cities/whole country where new cases are defected 3. get up-to-date information regarding best practices re/ Covid-19 in Vietnam and in the world.
  • And lastly, y'all have probably seen this (frankly this is the only thing reported from Vietnam by the Western media), the Vietnamese viral hand-washing song. It was popularized by John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and TikTok. But did you know, the production company behind the song was the Vietnamese Ministry of Health? They partnered with the original composers and performers of the songs to encourage young people to pay more attention to hygiene.
Imagine a government that's actually good on social media and inspires a Tiktok movement. And no, screaming all caps in Twitter doesn't count.

Closing note

As someone who lives in between two countries (born & raised in Vietnam, but have grown up and work and live in the US), I understand that culture plays a big factor in the difference between "the East" and "the West" reaction to the Coronavirus. For one thing, privacy is of much larger concern for Americans (and I would imagine Europeans too). It wouldn't fly well in the US or Europe if information about someone down to where they live or who their families/friends are get circulated with such speed, like it did with patient 17th in Vietnam. Furthermore (and this is obviously a gross generalization), the East generally values the community (or in this case, public health) while the West generally values the individuals (or in this case, privacy and personal freedom). It would make sense to me that then countries such as China, Vietnam, or Singapore, have a much easier time imposing "draconian measures" such as early lockdown or mandatory/voluntary reporting of suspicious cases.
What I don't understand, nor agree with, is Western portrayal of some countries' response to the Coronavirus purely on their caricature of the country/culture. When Wuhan, Hubei, went under lockdown, the Washington Post headline was "China's Coronavirus lockdown, brought to you by authoritarianism." When Italy went under lockdown, footages of how people are still loving life and singing from balcony widely circulated. Double standard much. And of course, no reporting whatsoever on the amazing job the Vietnamese government is doing.
I'm not saying I'm 100% in favor government being able to interfere with people's daily lives in all kinds of circumstances. But I truly do believe, in this case, the Western governments have got ways to go to play catch up with Eastern governments, especially the Vietnamese government. If only Vietnam had an "approval rating" like the West has, you probably would see a 99% approval rating for Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam with regard to his stellar campaign to fight Covid-19 in Vietnam thus far, from all Vietnamese young and old, liberal and conservative alike. Could you say the same thing about the testing and treatment provided by the US administration?

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