Vietnam's war on COVID-19

Is there a military solution to COVID-19?  Under Directive 16, issued on July 16, southern Vietnam may soon find out.  Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as everyone still calls it, is cordoned off and under curfew from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M.  There are checkpoints in every neighborhood.  Military vehicles poured into the downtown area on August 19 to enforce a "hard lockdown."  Rifle-carrying soldiers were deployed on August 23.

Vietnam's response to last year's wave of infections was touted as a success in the international press.  Pop stars Min and Erik created a happy tune to promote hand-washing called "Jealous Coronavirus."  Their video was featured on John Oliver's show.

"Vietnam's Coronavirus Recovery Is as Good as It Gets," the Wall Street Journal reported on April 24, 2020.  The country had no COVID deaths at a time when other countries had suffered hundreds.

This was quite an achievement for a country whose health care system is ranked No. 160 by the World Health Organization.  I was once examined at a Vietnamese hospital.  At the end of the examination, I looked at the equipment.  A lot of it was broken.  It had been a Potemkin examination.

Things have gotten grimmer since then.  As of August 30, Vietnam has had nearly 11,000 COVID deaths, or 111 per million population.  On Statista's COVID death chart, Vietnam ranks No. 108 out of 155 countries.  Some 17 percent of Vietnamese have had at least one vaccine shot; only 2 percent have had two shots.

When the delta variant hit, I was working as a teacher in Binh Duong Province, just outside Ho Chi Minh.  Binh Duong has a population of 2.5 million.  It is second only to Ho Chi Minh in terms of COVID death and infection rates.

Two days before the directive was issued, I noticed people stocking up on food and medicine, so I did the same.  Then came the checkpoints.  I got an antigen test for COVID for $24. I had to pull this out at three separate checkpoints to get to my local supermarket.

Foreigners may complain that the lockdown is a scam to protect profiteering by the testing and vaccine companies, but few Vietnamese share such cynicism.  The government's response to the virus remains popular.

The motorbike is the king of Vietnamese transportation.  Vietnam had a mask mandate even before Directive 16, but enforcement was lax.  Those who did wear a mask often pulled it down below their chins.  This changed dramatically after the directive was issued.  Not only did the other drivers start wearing masks, but they would also yell at me if I drove around without one.  After all, who wants to see a motorbike with COVID?

In recent days, the lockdown has intensified.  Most stores are closed, and "shelter in place" orders have been issued.  Saigon residents have turned to motorcycle delivery.  But the delivery services do not venture into areas with high infection rates.  Residents in these areas must rely on the army for handouts of rice, vegetables, and COVID testing kits.

As the airport is inside the city limits, I needed police authorization and a COVID test result to catch my flight back to Seattle.  The night before, the taxi company I had made my reservation with realized that it could not get through the cordon around Saigon and canceled.  So I took my motorbike and left my luggage in Vietnam.

Police and other government workers are supposed to worship only Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh).  But Buddhism and Catholicism flourish nonetheless.  The officer who approved my authorization follows Master Ruma, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk based in Durham, Georgia.

Every foreigner has a story about Saigon's scary traffic.  Motorbikes can come at you from directions you didn't think possible.  But these days, Saigon is a ghost town.  With few able to continue working, some 4.7 million out of a population of 8.8 million are receiving emergency assistance.

While the public maintains its focus on COVID, Vietnam has other health problems, too.  As recently as 2017, there was a cholera outbreak in Ben Tre Province spread by contaminated iced tea made with bottled water.  Few people noticed.

The course an epidemic takes is easier to predict than you might think.  There is a rule of thumb that has stood the test of time called Farr's Law.  It was derived by British scientist William Farr in 1830 based on his observations of smallpox.

According to Farr, epidemics arise for no apparent reason, increase at a geometric rate, and then decline at the same rate.  On July 16, Vietnam had 24 COVID deaths.  The epidemic has yet to peak, with 659 deaths on August 29.

Peter Kauffner lives in Sequim, Washington, United States.

Image: COVID testing in Vietnam. YouTube screen grab.

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