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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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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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Press Release

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese’s Press Release on the Indictment of Three Members of The Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN)’s

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As media organizations, Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines vehemently denounce the three recent arrests of the three members of IJAVN: Le Huu Minh Tuan (detained on June 12, 2020), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (detained on May 23, 2020, and Pham Chi Dung (detained on November 21, 2019).

All of these three journalists were charged with the crime “publish, store, and disseminate or propagandize information, documentation, and products against the Social Republic of Vietnam” (Article 117 of Vietnam’s current Penal Code). This penal code has already been viewed as a blatant violation of people’s freedom of speech and free press by many human rights organizations. 

IJAVN – together with running its Vietnam Thoi Bao newspaper – is a regular civil society organization formed under the right to associate, and it sets to implement the right for a free press and promote an independent and decent media for Vietnam.

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines share and support the values in which the IJAVN pursues. 

As journalists, we ultimately care for the safety of our other colleagues. We consider the reality of a government trying to silence any journalist to be an imminent threat to us and anyone who practices free speech.

Silencing journalists is also a violation of the right to read free and independent media of the people.

We have realized that the call for the government of Vietnam to release immediately and unconditionally these three journalists of IJAVN would be unrealistic in the situation of Vietnam. However, that action is the only righteous conduct that the Vietnamese government could act right now, and therefore, we call on them to immediately do so.

We also call on all of the journalists, the activists, the public, the international organizations, and the foreign governments to jointly monitor and pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan; and to call on the government to respect the Vietnamese people’s right for a free press and the freedom to form associations.

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To contact us, please email editor@luatkhoa.org

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