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Vietnam Reports Zero COVID-19 Deaths – Drawing Praise and Scrutiny

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Banner by Le Duc Hiep
Banner - created by artist Le Duc Hiep - to encourage people fighting the coronavirus in Vietnam.

With the government’s new decree against “fake news,” the official COVID-19 numbers are being questioned

Photo credits: Screenshot from Ministry of Health, April 23, 2020

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.

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Freedom of expression

Reporters Without Borders Calls For The Release Of Pham Doan Trang

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Pham Doan Trang. Photo courtesy: Thinh Nguyen

On April 7, 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a press statement condemning the arrest of jailed Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang

Phan Doan Trang, co-founder and editor of the online magazines The Vietnamese and Luât Khoa, and a recipient of the 2019 RSF Press Freedom Prize for Impact, was arrested at her home on the night of October 6, 2020. She was taken away by plainclothes policemen and has not been heard from since She has been denied access to a lawyer and her family has also been unable to contact her. Currently, she faces up to 20 years in prison under Article 117 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, under the charge of engaging in “anti-state propaganda”. 

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, says: “The Vietnamese Communist Party’s current leadership… needs to understand that history will hold them to account for the crackdown on press freedom …. They can save face by freeing Pham Doan Trang and all of the other unjustly detained journalists.”

This is not the first time RSF has demanded her release. On October 7, 2020, just one day after her arrest, it published its first statement which echoes much of the same sentiments here. It has also launched an international awareness campaign to fight for her cause. 


Support from Other RSF Laureates 

Several other RSF awardees have called for Phan Doan Trang’s immediate and unconditional release. They have also released several videos in various social media outlets to show their support for her, and to help bring this situation to the attention of the international community. 

Tomasz Piatek, a Polish journalist and an RSF prize recipient in 2017, addressed Vietnam’s leaders:, “I am asking you to release my friend from prison immediately and stop harassing and tormenting her for writing the truth. If you want to present yourself to the world as politicians and leaders of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, you must immediately stop harassing your citizens and give your citizens the right to the truth.”

Swati Chaturvedi, an Indian journalist and Reporters Without Borders prize awardee in 2018, said, “RSF stands for the fight of all journalists. Please help and speak out for my colleague, my Vietnamese colleague Pham Doan Trang right now.”

Can Dündar, a Turkish journalist, documentary filmmaker and 2016 RSF laureate, similarly asked that the Vietnamese authorities release Phan Doan Trang and to respect the freedom of the media.

Inday Espina-Varona, a Filipina journalist and awardee of RSF’s Prize for Independence in 2018, stated that Pham Doan Trang “has been charged with disseminating information that opposed the state of Vietnam… [it is] every journalist and citizen’s obligation to criticise and when necessary to oppose policies and actions inimical to the welfare and rights of people… it is also the duty of journalists and citizens wherever we are in the world to stand up when those who seek to do the right thing are battered for their efforts.”


Statement from the Publication: 

The Vietnamese joins Reporters Without Borders and our other international allies in demanding for the expedient release of Pham Doan Trang. The trumped-up charges against her are clearly false and the only thing she is guilty of is providing Vietnamese citizens with accurate and independent information free from the manipulation and misdirection of the Vietnamese government and its selfish misguided agenda.

The fight for freedom, democracy, and a better tomorrow for Vietnam continues and we at The Vietnamese will do our part to see this through till the end. 

To show your support for this cause, kindly consider signing this petition for the swift release of our co-founder, colleague, and friend. 

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Meet The New State Leadership

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Pham Minh Chinh and Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Photo Courtesy: Nhu Y/plo.vn

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday morning.


The rumors were right. Meet the new state leadership

We reported correctly in our first briefing on February 8 that there were rumors that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, the head of the Party Central Committee’s Organization Commission and Vuong Dinh Hue, the secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee, would be named president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly, respectively.

What is happening in the last session of the National Assembly is proving the rumors are right.

Vuong Dinh Hue took over the chairperson position of the National Assembly on March 31 after his predecessor, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, was released from duty the previous day by the legislative chamber’s resolution. The Communist Party quickly appointed the then-minister of finance, Dinh Tien Dung, to replace Hue as the party chief of Hanoi on April 3.

The National Assembly also relieved Nguyen Xuan Phuc from the prime minister post and Nguyen Phu Trong from the president post on April 3, paving the way for elections of Nguyen Xuan Phuc to be president and Pham Minh Chinh to be prime minister this week. Phuc was already nominated to the post on April 2.

When this entire process ends tentatively by the end of April 5, the political tradition of having a “gang of four” sharing four top seats of the party and the state will be restored.


Another journalist is arrested

Nguyen Hoai Nam, a former investigative journalist working for the mainstream media, was arrested on April 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently under pre-trial detention and is charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

Who is Nam? VnExpress says he was a former reporter at Thanh Nien (Youth), Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Law), Vietnam Television and Phap Luat Viet Nam (Vietnam Law). The news agency added that Nam had posted on his Facebook account several articles challenging police investigations into violations at Vietnam Inland Waterways Administration, which it said had  resulted in the arrest of its former deputy head Tran Duc Hai in 2019.

According to VnExpress: “The reporter implicated 15 people who had allegedly committed violations regarding the case, 12 more than determined by police. He went on to accuse the investigators of ‘letting the criminals off the hook.’”

The nature of the charge: 

  • The charge is based on Article 331 of the 2015 Penal Code, previously known as Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code.
  • The criminal provision is widely condemned by both domestic and international human rights groups as vague and as used by the government to silence critics.
  • Activists ran a campaign called the “258 Campaign” to advocate for the abolition of the provision.

Four citizens convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda

Publicly saying bad things about the Communist Party might well result in being imprisoned for years in Vietnam. That’s what happened to four citizens in Khanh Hoa Province on March 30.

Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy, 45, was sentenced to  nine years in prison, Ngo Thi Ha Phuong, 25, to seven years and Le Viet Hoa, 59, to five years, VnExpress reported.

Another person, Vu Tien Chi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Lam Dong Province.

Just like Article 331 and Article 258, this criminal provision has received a high degree of criticism from human rights groups inside and outside of Vietnam.


Read more about Vietnam:

The US Department of State’s human rights report on Vietnam

“The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, and led by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in 2016, were neither free nor fair; there was limited competition among Communist Party-vetted candidates.”

Drinking coffee in the US? Worry about forests in Vietnam, study says

Mongabay | April 2, 2021

“The U.S.’s thirst for coffee drives forest loss in central Vietnam, while Germany’s craving for cocoa is doing the same in West Africa, a landmark study that tracks the drivers of deforestation across borders found.”

Vietnam Should be More Proactive in Global Governance

The Diplomat | March 30, 2021

“After its COVID-19 successes, Vietnam is well positioned to play a more energetic role on the global stage.”

The Vietnamese Recovery Is Made in America

Wall Street Journal | March 30, 2021

“Vietnam’s economy is growing again, on the back of a strong rise in exports. The Southeast Asian nation looks to be one of the most clear-cut international beneficiaries of the U.S. stimulus package.”

How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse

ISEAS | March 3, 2021

  • The operations of Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops reveal that the online discourse is manipulated to enforce the Communist Party’s line. 
  • Vietnamese authorities constantly grapple with the vexing question: How to strike a delicate balance between placating critical public sentiment online while ensuring that it does not spill over into protests against the regime. 
  • When it comes to methods, targets and motives, there appears to be significant crossover between public opinion shapers and the government’s cyber troops. 
  • The Vietnamese state cyber-troops have been encouraged to use real accounts to massreport content. This helps explain why it is the only Southeast Asian state to publicly acknowledge having a military cyber unit. 
  • The lack of political and technological wherewithal presents an uphill battle for these cyber-troops in influencing Vietnam’s online information environment.

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Another Congressional Candidate Arrested While Congress Elects New Leaders

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Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the commencement of the National Assembly Session on March 24, 2021. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

The Vietnam Briefing is released every Monday.


Another congressional candidate arrested

Independent journalist Le Trong Hung, a candidate for the National People’s Congress, was arrested on March 27 by Hanoi local police, VOA cited his family.

He had filed his candidacy earlier this year and his application was approved by election officials. 

Hung is known for running his social media-based TV channel called Chan Hung TV, that broadcasted information about victims of injustice, including  farmers who had lost their land and people who had been wrongfully convicted.

Besides Hung, another person arrested after declaring his candidacy is Tran Quoc Khanh, as we reported two weeks ago. The general election will be held on May 23, 2021.


The National Assembly is convening to decide top state positions

If things go as planned, Vietnam will have a new president, a new prime minister and a new chairperson of the National Assembly potentially by April 7.

Some other top seats of the National Assembly and the cabinet will also be considered.

It’s now officially announced that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be nominated to be president of the state. 


Tension in the South China Sea

Not only has China sent warplanes into Taiwan’s air space over the past week, but also hundreds of Chinese vessels have also massed in disputed areas in the South China Sea.

From Reuters:

“Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang on Thursday said the Chinese vessels at the reef, which Hanoi calls Da Ba Dau, had infringed on its sovereignty. 

‘Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,’ Hang told a regular briefing. 

A Vietnamese coastguard vessel could be seen moored near the disputed area on Thursday, according to ship tracking data published by the Marine Traffic website. 

Hang said Vietnam’s coastguard was ‘exercising its duties as regulated by laws’, including international law.”


Rapping Vietnam Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink tapped as Joe Biden’s top Asia envoy

He made headlines last month in Vietnam by rapping in both English and Vietnamese. Now he’s nominated for one of the top seats in the US State Department.

From The South China Morning Post:

“The US ambassador who made a splash in Vietnam by making a rap video may soon get a promotion – to be the top diplomat for Asia under President Joe Biden. Daniel Kritenbrink, a career diplomat who speaks Chinese and Japanese, was nominated by Biden to be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a White House statement said.”


Learn more about Vietnam:

Vietnam proves immune to China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign

March 27, 2021 | Nikkei Asia

“It would be a stretch to accredit that one comment as an accurate measure of public sentiment in Vietnam toward the Chinese-made vaccine. But in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has remained a prominent outlier to China’s fanfare vaccine diplomacy campaign.”

Biden can address Vietnam’s currency valuation without Section 301

March 27, 2021 | East Asia Forum

“While there were intense talks during the Trump administration — including a call between Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc — there are no reports suggesting any ongoing talks with the Biden administration.”

China, Vietnam Lead Three-Speed Asian Recovery, World Bank Says

March 26, 2021 | Bloomberg

“A three-speed recovery is taking hold across East Asia and the Pacific, with China and Vietnam already beating their pre-pandemic levels of economic growth while other countries could take years more to heal, according to World Bank projections.”

Vietnam’s New Government Election: The Sooner the Better?

March 23, 2021 | Fulcrum

“There is little reason for the Community Party of Vietnam to repeat its “fast track” procedure to get a new government in place. The Party’s reputation is best served by its playing by the rules.”

Why Biden Sends Warships to the South China Sea, Just as Trump Did

March 22, 2021 | VOA News

“U.S. President Joe Biden is keeping pace with his predecessor in the frequency of American warships sent to Asia, analysts believe, a way to get a foothold in contested seas and routinize warnings aimed at the region’s strongest maritime force, Beijing.”

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