But there’s one overlooked success story — Vietnam. The country of 97 million people has not reported a single coronavirus-related death and on Saturday had just 328 confirmed cases
, despite its long border with China and the millions of Chinese visitors it receives each year. This is all the more remarkable considering Vietnam is a low-middle income country with a much less-advanced healthcare system than others in the region. It only has 8 doctors
for every 10,000 people, a third of the ratio in South Korea, according to the World Bank. After a three-week nationwide lockdown, Vietnam lifted social distancing rules
in late April. It hasn’t reported any local infections for more than 40 days
. Businesses and schools have reopened
, and life is gradually returning to normal.
To skeptics, Vietnam’s official numbers may seem too good to be true. But Guy Thwaites, an infectious disease doctor who works in one of the main hospitals designated by the Vietnamese government to treat Covid-19 patients, said the numbers matched the reality on the ground. “I go to the wards every day, I know the cases, I know there has been no death,” said Thwaites, who also heads the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City. “If you had unreported or uncontrolled community transmission, then we’ll be seeing cases in our hospital, people coming in with chest infections perhaps not diagnosed — that has never happened,” he said. So how has Vietnam seemingly bucked the global trend and largely escaped the scourge of the coronavirus? The answer, according to public health experts, lies in a combination of factors, from the government’s swift, early response to prevent its spread, to rigorous contact-tracing and quarantining and effective public communication.
Vietnam started preparing for a coronavirus outbreak weeks before its first case was detected. At the time, the Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization had both maintained that there was no “clear evidence” for human-to-human transmission. But Vietnam was not taking any chances. “We were not only waiting for guidelines from WHO. We used the data we gathered from outside and inside (the country to) decide to take action early,” said Pham Quang Thai, deputy head of the Infection Control Department at the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Hanoi.
The decisive early actions effectively curbed community transmission and kept Vietnam’s confirmed cases at just 16 by February 13. For three weeks, there were no new infections — until the second wave hit in March, brought by Vietnamese returning from abroad. Authorities rigorously traced down the contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients and placed them in a mandatory two-week quarantine. “We have a very strong system: 63 provincial CDCs (centers for disease control), more than 700 district-level CDCs, and more than 11,000 commune health centers. All of them attribute to contact tracing,” said doctor Pham with the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology. A confirmed coronavirus patient has to give health authorities an exhaustive list of all the people he or she has met in the past 14 days. Announcements are placed in newspapers and aired on television to inform the public of where and when a coronavirus patient has been, calling on people to go to health authorities for testing if they have also been there at the same time, Pham said.
As of May 1, about 70,000 people had been quarantined in Vietnam’s government facilities, while about 140,000 had undergone isolation at home or in hotels, the study said. The study also found that of the country’s first 270 Covid-19 patients, 43 percent were asymptomatic cases — which it said highlighted the value of strict contact-tracing and quarantine. If authorities had not proactively sought out people with infection risks, the virus could have quietly spread in communities days before being detected.
Public communication and propaganda
From the start, the Vietnamese government has communicated clearly with the public about the outbreak. Dedicated websites, telephone hotlines and phone apps were set up to update the public on the latest situations of the outbreak and medical advisories. The ministry of health also regularly sent out reminders to citizens via SMS messages. Pham said on a busy day, the national hotlines alone could receive 20,000 calls, not to count the hundreds of provincial and district-level hotlines.
The country’s massive propaganda apparatus was also mobilized, raising awareness
of the outbreak through loudspeakers, street posters, the press and social media. In late February, the health ministry released a catchy music video based on a Vietnamese pop hit to teach people how to properly wash their hands and other hygiene measures during the outbreak. Known as the “hand-washing song,” it immediately went viral, so far attracting more than 48 million
views on Youtube. Thwaites said Vietnam’s rich experience in dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, such as the SARS epidemic from 2002 to 2003 and the following avian influenza, had helped the government and the public to better prepare for the Covid-19 pandemic. “The population is much more respectful of infectious diseases than many perhaps more affluent countries or countries that don’t see as much infectious disease — Europe, the UK and the US for example,” he said.
“The country understands that these things need to be taken seriously and complies with guidance from the government on how to prevent the infection from spreading.”