With the government’s new decree against “fake news,” the official COVID-19 numbers are being questioned
While the world death toll due to COVID-19 has topped 190,000 cases and many countries around the world have reported an alarming number of fatalities — from 50 deaths in Thailand to more than 50,000 in the US — Vietnam, along with neighboring countries, Laos and Cambodia, has reported a total of zero deaths.
Although the Vietnamese government has recorded 268 COVID cases and shown strong public health initiatives, including a handwashing song that went viral, nevertheless, the reported zero deaths and relatively low cases are questionable, especially coming from an authoritarian country with a record of bending the truth.
A “Textbook Approach”
Vietnam does deserve credit for having made an early response, even before the country saw its first case. According to The Diplomat, the Ministry of Health issued urgent messages on outbreak prevention to government agencies on January 16 and to hospitals and clinics nationwide on January 21. The country recorded its first cases on January 23 in Ho Chi Minh City, just two days before the Tet Lunar New Year holiday.
Todd Pollack, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School who works with a Harvard initiative in Hanoi, Health Advancement in Vietnam (HAIVN), told Reuters that Vietnam learned its lesson after the SARS outbreak in 2003 and adopted a textbook approach in its early response strategy.
On March 16, Vietnam began compulsory testing and a 14-day quarantine for persons in virus-hit areas as well as some arrivals from overseas. Some of the quarantine camps were set up at military bases. According to Reuters, the numbers quarantined reached at least 44,955.
While democratic countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and the United States, have mostly enforced home quarantines, authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam have resorted to quarantine camps with questionable practices.
Were the Government’s Actions Enough?
The Vietnamese government’s actions have been praised as a low-cost model for developing countries. While wealthier nations like Taiwan and South Korea have been able to perform mass testing, Vietnam’s method of contact tracing and quarantining is relatively less expensive.
Still, despite the country’s preventative efforts, Vietnam’s international border was still porous until March 25, when the country canceled international flights. As new data has revealed that one-fourth of carriers don’t exhibit symptoms, it is highly possible that asymptomatic carriers brought the virus to Vietnam and “super spreaders” exponentially passed it around in the same way the virus spread and inflicted deaths in almost every country around the world – except for authoritarian countries.
North Korea has also reported no deaths. Western officials suspect the reported numbers coming out of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Indonesia.According to a U.S.-intelligence report confirmed by Bloomberg, China’s public tally of COVID-19 infections and deaths is false.
In more developed Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, which also share the recent memory of the 2009 H1N1 and 2003 SARS pandemics, they also reacted to COVID-19 with strong public health measures. But despite these countries’ greater wealth, resources and expertise (as well as the lack of a border with China), they have more COVID-19 cases and deaths than Vietnam: South Korea 240 deaths, 10,702 cases; Singapore 12 deaths, 11,718 cases; Taiwan 6 deaths, 427 cases.
In South Korea, the fatality rate among confirmed cases is 2.2 percent; the United States is 4.3 percent and in Italy (with a large elderly population), the fatality rate is 12.8 percent. Compared to the rest of the world, Vietnam’s zero death rate among 268 cases is statistically significant.
To further repress the sharing of information, Vietnam began fining people for spreading “fake news” with a new decree drafted in February. This decree (the official number is 15/2020/NĐ-CP) updates the cybersecurity law passed last year with more stringent measures, including penalties against anyone sharing banned publications or using social media to share false, untruthful, distorted, or slanderous information.
“This decree provides yet another potent weapon in the Vietnamese authorities’ arsenal of online repression,” Tanya O’Carroll, director of Amnesty International Tech, told Reuters. “It contains a raft of provisions that blatantly violate Vietnam’s international human rights obligations”.
Hundreds of fines have already been handed out, with fines ranging from 10-20 million dong ($426-$853), equivalent to around three to six months’ basic salary in Vietnam, Reuters reports. In March, a woman in Ha Tinh was fined for a Facebook post in which she incorrectly said the coronavirus had spread to her local community.
Vietnam Under Lockdown
Even if the international community were to believe that Vietnam’s reporting of zero COVID-19 deaths is accurate, it begs the question: Why did the government mandate a lockdown, put the economy in dire straits, continue to expend a great deal of resources quarantining thousands of people and encourage people to maintain a social distance?
For instance, why not follow Sweden’s policy, which has steered clear of mandating a lockdown and only advised people to avoid non-essential activities. Four U.S. states also have no lockdown.
Some observers believe that the Vietnamese government can earn a great public image by touting zero deaths and indeed, the Vietnamese government has been praising itself in state-owned media and winning acclaim internationally, including in NPR and The World Economic Forum.
Furthermore, the zero death count helps to shore up a belief among Vietnamese citizens that the authoritarian system is better able than democratic countries to handle crises. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has described Vietnam’s actions to control the virus as the “spring general offensive of 2020,” referring to the 1968 Tet Offensive by Communist forces during the Vietnam-American war.
“Autocrats love a crisis,” writes Michael Abramowitz and Arch Puddington of Freedom House in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. The writers describe Turkey, Venezuela and Russia using various crises to entrench their power, such as the 2004 school bombing in Russia and the failed coups in Turkey and Venezuela. It’s clear Vietnam has been taking notes from other authoritarian powers as it has exploited the health crisis to strengthen its power and take away freedom of speech from citizens.
As the rest of the world continues tallying up its death count, Vietnam is now being closely watched by international observers to see whether the country will be able to control the spread of the virus – or suppress the truth – in the long run.