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Vietnam and COVID-19

The one-party state has helped reveal some imperfections of liberalism 

Somewhere, there is a parable about three persons - two concentrated on trifles and one getting on with the tasks at hand, the latter’s tasks ending as those of the former squash their trifles. One-party states are not on the right side of our history. Ergo, liberals do not tend to loudly admit that a one-party state is ever on the right side of any parable. But regarding the response to COVID-19, Vietnam is firmly on the right side in this one and through its actions has shone a light on our failures during the pandemic. 

Spooning Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam is a mere step from southeast China; the small middle-income country also has a population of approximately 100 million, but a remarkably successful COVID-19 story thus far. At the time of writing, if you searched ‘vietnam covid-19’ in Google, you would see 324 (+0) confirmed cases, 267 recovered and precisely 0 deaths. While there is a discrepancy between actual cases and confirmed cases, in poorer countries especially, the international community is quietly praising Vietnam for its swift and relatively robust proactive response to COVID-19. And the experts agree: Vietnam is on the verge of a resounding victory against COVID-19.  

This is quite the achievement and cannot be brushed aside as easy because Vietnam is a country with less at stake. Vietnam has made a sacrifice or two this spring - any blind lockdown was well against its interests. In April, it was supposed to chair the 36th summit of the formidable Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Danang, which is an opportunity to forward interests in southeast Asia and the wider Pacific region. This cannot be understated. ASEAN can act as a politico-economic bulwark against (and with) China and the US to protect or secure the interests of smaller Asian countries. It appears that the virus has spurred Vietnam to seek trade within ASEAN; in its planned chairmanship the country was expected to push for more trade with external countries, including China. The latter country has given aid to ASEAN countries during the pandemic, including to Vietnam (which itself has distributed aid such as face masks to countries such as Britain). This may not be the sincere gesture it seems, however, if it seeks their dependency on China, and along with financial support encourages them into its arms after the pandemic. Vietnam and the rest of ASEAN will do well to keep the group as independent as possible and make the hard decisions to strengthen it for the long-term and thus compel China’s hand to its greater interests. Unfortunately, the virus has put a spanner in the works for now. Vietnam was also excited to sit as a temporary member of the UN Security Council, again a global platform and potential builder of morale. The point is that Vietnam, like other countries, has suspended much status and glamour because of the pandemic.

As early as the middle of January, the Ministry of Health issued urgent dispatches on outbreak prevention, including to clinics and hospitals. This was so early that COVID-19 was referred to as an ‘acute pneumonia disease outbreak from China’. The dispatch ordered all hospitals to introduce ‘rapid reaction teams’ to fight the virus and its spread. When China had less than 500 confirmed cases, patients with conditions like coughs and fevers in Vietnam were isolated and examined in separate sections in clinics and hospitals. All of this came before Vietnam recorded a single case of coronavirus. Before January was complete, the Government established a new committee specifically tasked to prevent the epidemic and assess the preparedness of quarantine centres.

By the middle of the next month, the Vietnamese public became involved and could find specific information about the virus via a new website and app that even offered users a self-assessment guide for infection and instructions on isolation. Soon, neighbourhoods came together and rooted out breakers of new rules and disseminators of false information. 800 people were fined for the latter by the end of March. According to Dr Dang Quang Tan, Director General of Vietnam’s Health Ministry, the country also conducted large scale contact tracing, something we are still arguing about now. Vincom, a subsidiary of the Vingroup conglomerate, specialising in shopping malls and offices, conducted full body temperature checks on staff before they began their shifts. In Britain, some places started this procedure only weeks ago. Vincom extended it to customers.

It is ironic that ‘Get Brexit Done’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his super majority did not act swiftly enough to check borders or quarantine travellers, very much unlike Vietnam

On 1 February, all flights to and from China were suspended just before schools were closed nationwide. Many international flights followed, facing cancellations. The border with China was closed for all but essential journeys and supplies. But perhaps most remarkable of all, Vietnam arguably never actually locked down. Rather, a localised system was initiated whereby affected areas were quarantined for a short period of time with regular information sharing between local authorities, Government and the public at large.  

According to Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, it was Vietnam’s experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003 that gave them the groundwork and inspiration on which to build a defence against COVID-19.

In well developed and liberal countries, it is easy to not take epidemics seriously and dangerous to propose anything like border closure or state interference. But liberals have a poor or slow grasp of sacrifice, with a woefully poor understanding of the pursuit of long-term victory. They demonstrate a lacklustre or slow response to novel threats, unlearned by recent memory, unlike the Vietnamese. Liberals should never become complacent in their championing of their outlook as the alternative to repression. In order to do that, liberals would do well to ensure that the state is proactive and does intervene when a common threat arises.

Vietnam has reopened society and is easing social distancing. Even its economy has a strong chance of a relatively fast recovery. We, on the other hand, are suffering the rising economic woes and bracing ourselves for those to come.

We were too weak to lockdown and are now too afraid to lift it.

Jack Margetson