The United States recorded its first COVID-19 infection in late January — the same week that the virus officially reached Vietnam.
That was nearly four months ago. Since then, America has suffered more than 1 million cases and is losing thousands of lives to the coronavirus each day.
As for Vietnam? Zero reported deaths and fewer than 300 cases. Not bad for a nation of 95 million people.
Is there any other sizable country that has so thoroughly vanquished COVID-19 — and without the resources of a wealthy nation? (Many Vietnamese earn only a few hundred dollars per month, less than what most Americans spend on food.)
South Korea, Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan and Singapore are cited as virus-fighting success stories. Yet, Vietnam has more citizens than all of those places combined — and has received only a fraction of the credit.
There are indeed lessons to be learned from Vietnam, namely the benefits of acting swiftly and sternly.
Its leaders wasted little time in “framing the pandemic as an enemy,” said Ba-Linh Tran, an independent policy analyst based in Ho Chi Minh City. (Tran is soon to receive a doctorate from the University of Bath.)
In Vietnam, public service announcements warn that the virus is “threatening the human race” and that “we have entered a war.” A deputy premier, Tran said, declares that everyone is now a “soldier.”
But Tran said the public didn’t need too much nudging from officials to realize this is a life-or-death struggle.
For starters, he said, people remember the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s. They also would not have believed that, without a serious lockdown, “it’s going to work out fine.”
That’s what President Donald Trump was telling Americans in late February. By that point, Vietnam was shutting down borders and had started developing its own test for the coronavirus.
The government’s quick call to action was key, Tran said, but “it’s not entirely attributable to the government’s call.” Vietnam’s formula for success, he said, is strong policy plus massive public buy-in.
During the lockdown, shopkeepers — the few allowed to stay open — would often buy their own thermometers and alcohol gel, screening customers at the door. On the streets, public art in the style of Cold War-era propaganda posters has flourished, exalting nurses instead of guerrillas.
“We have this sense,” Tran said, “of the collective good.”
While some of Vietnam’s campaigns are fear-inducing, its most popular offering is a super-catchy song reminding people to wash their hands and put on a mask. (It went viral globally and has racked up tens of millions of views online.)
But these mass media campaigns are also backed by strict penalties for rule-breakers. Walking in public is not just taboo — any unmasked person found to have infected someone else can face prison time.
Tran said that, naturally, individuals have their own opinions about how the crisis should be handled. Yet, these conversations never explode into a public debate.
“We don’t have this debate, this very strange dichotomy, between personal liberty and the collective good. We never think that … every individual has the right to do whatever he or she wants.”
“We don’t have this debate, this very strange dichotomy, between personal liberty and the collective good,” Tran said. “We never think that … every individual has the right to do whatever he or she wants.”
He’s baffled by scenes from the United States, in which a noisy and well-armed minority of anti-lockdown protesters scream at police. “I have no idea why these people would do that,” he said. “It’s risky to themselves!”
That sort of dissent is forbidden in Vietnam, an authoritarian country governed by a single communist party. Transparency is not its strong suit. So, it’s also fair to ask if Vietnam’s miracle is legit — or if officials are manipulating the death toll.
If this is the case, the government has pulled off a spectacular cover-up, all under the watchful eyes of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC teams have been working side by side with Vietnamese health officials.
One CDC official based in Hanoi said he has “great confidence” in the government’s work; another cites the close contact between CDC teams and their Vietnam colleagues and said there is no “indication that the numbers are false.”
Even if the numbers are off, they’d have to be way, way off to recategorize Vietnam’s success story as a failure.
Officials would have to conceal more than 400 deaths from COVID-19 to reach a higher fatality rate than South Korea, which is widely praised for its response. If Vietnam’s COVID-19 mortality rate was comparable to the United States, it would’ve seen more than 20,000 deaths.
Vietnam’s self-proclaimed “war” on COVID-19 is still ongoing — and its fate could always change. The country remains barred to almost all foreign visitors.
But inside Vietnam, the public is starting to enjoy the fruits of its success. Many shops and schools are cautiously reopening. The typical boisterousness of Ho Chi Minh City, though muted in recent months, is coming back, Tran said.
“It feels like the whole city,” he said, “is waking up again.”