Coronavirus: The View from Vietnam
Inverted version of Yang Lui’s East Meets West pictogram series
On St. Patrick’s Day, a British airline pilot left a party at a popular bar here in Ho Chi Minh City, concerned that his coronavirus-like symptoms were worsening. The diagnosis was confirmed the following day. The Vietnamese health authorities have painstakingly traced and tested 98 of the estimated 155 people who attended the same party. Eight of them have been diagnosed with the virus and quarantined. Four of the party attendees from my own apartment building await their test results from their quarantine beds. The entire high-rise apartment building where the pilot lives has been house-quarantined for fourteen days, with security guards posted at the entrance.
Despite its population of nearly 100 million, and a shared border with China, Vietnam’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of phenomenal. Two months since onset, Vietnam has reported around 150 cases in total, with zero deaths; meanwhile, the U.S. is approaching 100,000 cases, with more than 1,300 deaths, and soaring exponentially. After the initial sixteen cases were resolved in mid-February, there was not a single active case in all of Vietnam for a two-week stretch.
The next two weeks will be the most critical for both nations’ largest cities in terms of exponential spread. Ho Chi Minh City has ‘flattened the curve’ like a pancake, while similarly sized New York, emphatically, has not. My own home state of Kansas has a population that is equal to just 3% of Vietnam’s, yet somehow Kansas has managed to contract as many cases of the coronavirus as all of Vietnam.
The secrets to Vietnam’s success? The government’s relentless communication of a single, consistent message of prevention and containment, and its early, decisive action:
By the time the country had counted its first eight cases, an epidemic was declared.
Schools have been closed nationwide since early February.
International borders have been closed off.
All bars, nightclubs, and restaurants have been closed.
In less than a month, a state university developed a new coronavirus test kit that is already being manufactured at a rate of 30,000 units per day. Kits are readily available throughout the country, with test results communicated within a couple hours.
Health officials have been meticulous about tracing the social movements of all positive cases and communicating transparently to the patient’s contacts and the community.
Vietnam provides treatment and quarantine free of charge for coronavirus victims and all recent arrivals from abroad, including fourteen-day accommodation and food.
Face masks are required in crowded public places.
Groceries (including toilet paper!) are plentiful, with no reports of hoarding.
The government sponsored a ‘viral’ comical dance video, Ghen Cô Vy (“The Hand-Washing Song”), to promote hygiene during the pandemic.
As a result of the ubiquitous and consistent government messaging, the Vietnamese public is following the program to the letter. They do so not out of fear of the government, but out of fear of the virus.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already removed Vietnam from the list of countries vulnerable to transmission of coronavirus. The U.S. CDC will send a delegation to Vietnam later this month to promote medical cooperation between the two countries.
In stark contrast, the U.S. authorities got off to a late start: School closings and self-isolation continue to be applied sporadically. As a result, the virus has spread exponentially and, without widespread testing, critical social contact tracing has been rendered impossible. And how can the U.S. still have a critical shortage of test kits, ventilators, and protective equipment this late in the game? In America’s worst pandemic in a century, federal agencies are leaving states to compete among themselves for access to critical equipment for sale from private manufacturers.
At the same time, the U.S. government’s messaging to the public has veered between inconsistent and misleading. The President’s own muddled and deluded messaging has led to passivity and even defiance among many Americans (“It’s just the flu, get over it”), putting millions of elderly Americans at risk. When the President cannot hide his impatience to stop this social-distancing nonsense and get back to making money, many feel comfortable hitting the beaches and crowding onto playgrounds.
Vietnam has controlled the virus, while the virus is now controlling the U.S. As we
read of the daily exponential growth in sickness and deaths, of overworked nurses and makeshift morgues, Americans should keep in mind that it didn’t have to be this way. The coronavirus was brought to us by nature, but the tragedy now unfolding in the U.S. is man-made.
Gregory Testerman is CEO at Testerman Advisory, LLC, a firm providing Sustainability and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) consulting services to emerging markets banks.
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