Vietnam planned to have a year packed with activities as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2020 and a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021 term. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation or postponement of numerous events and summit meetings. While it is said that the outbreak has derailed Vietnam’s diplomatic ambitions, the door remains open for Hanoi to transfer its domestic success in fighting the disease into diplomatic achievements. As the world enters the fourth month of the pandemic, Vietnam boasts a remarkably low infection rate in a country of 95 million people, with only 268 confirmed cases (97 active and 171 recovered) with no deaths as of April 17. This statistic is even more impressive given the long shared border with China, where the virus originated. Let us review the timeline of Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 and discuss its political implications.
Vietnam prepared for the outbreak before it recorded its first case. The Ministry of Health issued urgent dispatches on outbreak prevention to relevant government agencies on January 16 and to hospitals and clinics nationwide on January 21. Vietnam recorded its first cases on January 23 in Ho Chi Minh City, just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays. Two Chinese nationals from Wuhan arrived in Vietnam on January 13 and traveled throughout the country before being hospitalized on January 23. Shortly after, the Vietnamese government ramped up its response by organizing the National Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention on January 30, the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 1, when the country only recorded six confirmed cases, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed a decision declaring a national epidemic of what was then known only as the novel coronavirus (nCoV). On February 9, the Ministry of Health held a teleconference with the WHO and 700 hospitals at all levels nationwide to disseminate information on nCoV prevention and launched a website to disseminate information to the wider public. On February 11, the WHO officially named the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Aggressive preventive action enabled Vietnam to contain the outbreak, with only 16 cases, all recovered, by the end of February. For further context, the 16th patient was confirmed on February 13 and fully recovered on February 25, meaning that Vietnam went 22 days without any new cases. As a testament to this early success, the U.S. Center for Diseases Control (CDC) decided to take Vietnam off the list of countries with the risk of community spread of the virus.
That early success, however, was impeded by the discovery of patient 17. The patient traveled from Hanoi on February 15 to visit England, Italy, and France before returning to Hanoi on March 2 and failed to follow quarantine protocols. Patient 17 was hospitalized on March 6, and two days later, on March 8, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health Vu Duc Dam declared that Vietnam had officially entered the second phase of the fight against COVID-19. Similar to the first phase, marked by the epidemic declaration, the Vietnamese government escalated its public health response to flatten the curve. On March 10, the Ministry of Health launched the health declaration mobile application NCOVI to help the public report their medical conditions and follow the contact tracing operation, just before the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11. This second phase marked the transition from phase one, in which patients mostly originated from China, to a period when many countries were potential sources of the virus.
The transition into the third phase was even faster. Following the detection of two new clusters with unclear origins in Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi (patients zero there were patients 86 and 87) and Buddha Bar in HCM City (patient zero was patient 91 overall), the Vietnamese government suspended foreign entry on March 22, and all exceptions, including national returnees, are subjected to medical checks and mandatory 14-day quarantine. On March 23 the prime minister declared the third phase of the pandemic fight as the risk of community spread is high. When Bach Mai Hospital, one of the country’s top referral hospitals, became the largest and most complex hotbed of COVID-19 in Vietnam following a record of 10 cases linked to the hospital on March 28, on March 30, Prime Minister Phuc announced a nationwide pandemic during a meeting with the National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control. The following day on March 31, the prime minister issued a new directive that would place the nation under limited lockdown effective April 1. The directive enforced national isolation, banned gatherings, and encouraged staying home, closing borders, and implementing quarantine policy, among others.
Explaining the Success
Vietnam’s model for containing the outbreak has been touted as a successful low-cost model. Whereas its neighbors, Taiwan and South Korea, could afford mass testing, Vietnam lacked the resources and instead opted for selective but proactive prevention. Aside from some common policy actions such as contact tracing, ramping up production of medical supplies, and installing checkpoints at airports, Vietnam found its success in proactiveness. Over the course of three months since the first case, Vietnam has not hesitated to restrict movements where needed, balancing overt caution with precision.
For example, the provincial authority was allowed to lock down villages and communes following advisory notices from the Ministry of Health. Since the first cases emerged, there were only five instances of large-scale lockdowns. The first was on February 13 when Vinh Phuc Province confirmed the 16th patient in Son Loi Commune, Binh Xuyen District. On the same day, local authorities locked down the commune of 10,000 people, which confirmed eight patients and established two field hospitals in Vinh Yen Town. The quarantine was lifted on March 4, after 20 days of no new cases. Second, following patient 17’s confirmation on March 6, on March 7 Hanoi locked down Bach Truc Street, where the patient resided along with 66 households and 189 people. The quarantine was lifted on March 20 after no new cases were reported after testing. The last three instances were all after the national limited lockdown directive. On April 2, Hung Yen locked down Chi Trung commune following the confirmation of patient 219. On April 7, Me Linh district of Hanoi locked down Ha Loi village following the confirmation of patient 243. On April 8, Ha Nam province also quarantined Ngo Khe 3 village and medical personnel related to patient 251. These instances of lockdowns contained the risks of community transmission by strictly enforcing checkpoints in and out of the localities and setting up local medical facilities for testing and treatment.
Another example of aggressive prevention is the closure of schools. Vietnam recorded its first cases just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays, which fortunately had schools closed through February 1. Nonetheless, schools and government authorities extended the holiday season until February 10 on a case-by-case basis. On February 14, the Ministry of Health proposed schools to remain closed until the end of February, at which point schools had already closed nationwide . The decision to close schools nationwide, as a formality, came with the national isolation order on March 31, effective April 1. Consequently, Vietnamese students have not gone to school this spring semester, but schools are gradually adopting online teaching.
Despite the aggressive nature of these responses, the underlying factor that enables the Vietnamese government’s success is the mobilization of nationalism. The government has framed the virus as a common foreign enemy and called on the unity of the population to defeat it, echoing the enduring history of a nation always threatened by foreign invaders. Since “day one,” the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the state have led the fight with the motto “fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy.” Nonetheless, calls for nationalism are not without setbacks, as public sentiment was at one point villainizing Vietnamese students returning from abroad for carrying potential risks of transmission. Patient 17 was a notorious example that garnered public criticism, reflecting the effectiveness of the government in rallying the public but also the risk of overzealous nationalism.
In addition, the government has positioned itself as an effective source of leadership during the pandemic by providing information with transparency. The Ministry of Health took the initiative to launch a website and a mobile application not only to ease the medical process but also to disseminate accurate information quickly. The digital apparatus helped stem the spread of rumors and fake news, in addition to legal enforcement against people who spread inaccurate information or engage in profiteering. State media have also constantly covered the hotspots of the pandemic like China, Italy, Spain, and the United States to raise public awareness about the seriousness of COVID-19 and to demonstrate the essential of robust government intervention.
By being transparent and proactive in communicating with the public, the government was able to gain and maintain public confidence. In a Dalia Research survey of 45 countries asking about public opinion of government responses to the pandemic, 62 percent of Vietnamese participants said that the government is doing the “right amount,” topping the survey’s average with a higher rate than other “model” countries such as Singapore and South Korea.
Translating Domestic Success Globally
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues and disrupts ASEAN economies, on February 20 the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC), along with ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers, met in the ACC’s Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease in Laos to discuss response to the outbreak. The ACC welcomed the timely and effective measures of member countries, healthcare cooperation, and ASEAN agencies to share information and experience in preventing, diagnosing, treating, and controlling the disease. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh proposed pursuing a balanced approach in fighting the epidemic and maintaining open economic policies, while ensuring regular updates were made available to the public.
As the pandemic escalated in early March, the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the 36th ASEAN Summit were postponed, but Vietnam could still find venues to export its domestic success. On March 31, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung chaired the first teleconference of the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies. The meeting was followed by a teleconference between senior officials of ASEAN and the United States, attended by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, on April 1. Both meetings aimed to promote cooperation within the ASEAN Community and between ASEAN and the United States to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic by sharing information about the situation and implementation of measures taken in each country, while affirming the commitment to strengthen cooperation. Following these meetings, Vietnam chaired the 25th ACC Meeting on April 9 and the Special ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit on April 14 in which ASEAN members and their dialogue partners China, Japan, and South Korea agreed in principle to set up a joint fund to combat the pandemic.
Bilaterally, Vietnam has donated test kits and masks to many countries. Among them, Cambodia and Laos are its close friends, and the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain are its comprehensive and strategic partners. In supporting others, Vietnam has demonstrated its commitment to traditional relations and strengthened relationships with important partners.
Vietnam’s model is an example for countries and territories with limited resources and/or at early stages of fighting COVID-19 with a low number of cases.
Minh Vu is a graduating student of the Master of Arts in Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University. He has worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), East-West Center in Washington, and is currently an assistant at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, Inc.
Bich T. Tran is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Antwerp. She is a visiting fellow at the Global Affairs Research Center and a former Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington.