For most of 2020, as the novel coronavirus embarked on its deadly global migration, Vietnam enjoyed a place among the world’s most successful nations in containing the spread of the virus.
As of April 29, the country’s health authorities had reported just 2,910 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths overall, one of the best records in Asia, owing to its quick response to a series of outbreaks. As a result, it was the only nation in Southeast Asia to record a positive growth rate over the course of the pandemic year.
However, the Vietnamese government’s plans for a gradual economic opening now appears under threat, with a small but worrying spate of community transmissions.
On April 29, the nation recorded its first locally transmitted case of COVID-19 in 35 days, prompting a tightening of controls and new testing campaigns in several regions of the country, the same day that the World Health Organization warned that Vietnam not to relax its vigilance against the contagion.
In total, Vietnam has now reported 34 cases of community transmission in this current cluster, in the northern provinces of Ha Nam, Vinh Phuc, and Hung Yen as well as in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Two more cases, one in Hanoi and one in Da Nang, were announced today.
Likely the first of many, given that this spread of community transmission coincided with the annual four-day weekend for Reunification Day (April 30) and May Day (May 1), which saw resort towns like Da Lat, Vung Tau and Nha Trang packed with holidaymakers.
More concerning than the spread of these cases is the fact that they have been linked to overseas arrivals who have tested positive even after completing a mandatory two-week quarantine, suggesting the presence of COVID-19 strains with longer incubation periods. Among these were a Vietnamese man returning from Japan and a group of Chinese nationals.
According to Vietnamese media reports, the most recent case involved an Indian national who tested positive for an infectious new strain of the coronavirus after arriving in the country and completing a two-week quarantine in the northern city of Hai Phong, during which time he tested negative twice.
The government has responded by ordering that those currently in 14-day quarantine must remain in isolation after their period of confinement ends. The government has also announced that the mandatory quarantine period will be extended by a length to be determined in the coming days.
Vietnam’s mini-outbreak comes as Southeast Asian nations are besieged by new surges of COVID-19, among them Vietnam’s neighbors Cambodia and Laos, which also evaded the worst of the disease during the pandemic’s first year.
Cambodia has been struggling to hold back the disease since late February, prompting a strict and controversial lockdown in the capital Phnom Penh. Despite this, the country recorded another record of 938 cases, in addition to two deaths, today.
Laos has likewise introduced a two-week lockdown of its capital, banned international flights, and sealed its borders. This week, Vietnam also stepped up patrols along both nations’ borders in order to prevent COVID-19 being carried into the country by people crossing the porous frontier illegally.
Vietnam’s outbreak is still modest compared to most of the region, let alone India or Brazil, but is nonetheless likely to delay Vietnam’s plan for a staged opening of the country to international tourists.
The country had plans to resume international tourism between July and September of this year, focusing first on the popular beach and golf resorts around Danang. If successful, this would have put it on pace to open fully to international tourists during the last quarter of 2021.
These plans are now on hold, ensuring that the ban on foreign tourist arrivals that was imposed in March 2020 will remain in place for some time to come. (Currently, Vietnam only allows select categories of foreigners to enter the country, including high-skilled workers and those with diplomatic and official passports.)
While Vietnam’s communist government can be expected to respond to this latest outbreak with its typical ruthless efficiency, the outbreak functions as a reminder – if one was needed amid Southeast Asia’s alarming third wave – that COVID-19 doesn’t rest, and doesn’t need a big opening to wreak havoc.