Vietnam’s Unprecedented COVID-19 Challenge Compounded By A Deficit Of Trust In The Government

Dan Nguyen
Dan Nguyen

Vietnamese people are no strangers to natural disasters or political calamities that demand personal sacrifice and collective effort. Yet, why is the government’s‘COVID-19 Vaccine Fund’ being met with so much public backlash? A closer look into these criticisms reveals a deficit of trust in the government, in more ways than one, with nobody taking the initiative to deal with this problem.


June 2021 saw Vietnam facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak, especially in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). By the end of the month, the number of cases remained relatively high. The implications of the government’s difficulty in containing COVID-19 in Saigon are considerable.

First, it is the largest city in Vietnam and the economic flagship of the country. Thus, placing the entire city of Saigon under lockdown is arguably not an option the government would want to entertain. This is evidenced by government officials still stubbornly clinging to their “double target” goal [1] of attempting to suppress COVID-19 while at the same time maintaining economic activities. Time will tell if Vietnam will pull through or if this “double target” will turn into a “double failure.”

Second, the bitter history between Saigon, South Vietnam’s former capital during Vietnam War, and the Communists from Hanoi often resurfaces at times like this. This has cultivated a persistent lack of trust between many Saigonese and government leaders in Hanoi. Thus, it is not surprising to see many angry comparisons by Saigonese. They speak of the government’s unfair treatment of Saigon, as they perceive that less support has been given to the city to cope with the outbreak than was the case with northern provinces. When economic and political concerns are put together, they believe that Saigon is merely seen by the government as a cash cow – heavily milked yet poorly treated by Hanoi leaders.

However, this troubled past between the north and south regions is far from being the only reason for the lack of trust between the state and the people in Vietnam. With the unprecedented high number of daily cases and deaths, the Vietnamese finally realize the urgency of acquiring vaccines. Yet, the government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which calls for voluntary donations from individual citizens and the corporate sector to buy vaccines from overseas, has been met with strong criticism.

As expressed on social media, these objections seem to boil down to “I can’t trust the government with my money” or “I don’t trust the government to act in my best interest.” This lack of faith in the state is situated against a backdrop of multiple corruption scandals and a lack of transparency throughout the 2010s and taxpayers’ increasing scrutiny of public spending in recent years, which has resulted in their frustration.

To wit, the government announced in late June its plans to build more public statues, with the one in Thanh Hoa province alone costing approximately 255 billion dong (US$11 million).[2] The government could not have chosen a better time, or a better way, to add fuel to the fire.[3]

In a country where anti-China sentiment runs high, the government’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine and putting it into use only worsens the situation.[4] Skeptics of the VCP and China have every reason to be worried about the money in the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund being used to purchase only the Sinopharm vaccine.

With this perfect opportunity for public intellectuals to speak truth to power, economists Vu Thanh Tu Anh (from the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management) and Vu Tu Thanh (deputy regional managing director and Vietnam representative for the US-ASEAN Business Council), regrettably miss the point. Tu Anh’s Facebook post on June 8 rightly explained that the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund is a way to correct “government failure.” [5]

However, he mainly focused on the technical workings of the government’s budgeting related to COVID-19. Likewise, Tu Thanh’s post on his own Facebook page, posted on the same day, defends the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, stating that no vaccine manufacturer in the world can sell its vaccines to non-state actors at the moment and that the government is still responsible for the lion’s share of the amount used to purchase them.[6]

Mistaking politics for policy, both Tu Anh and Tu Thanh fail to address the issues underlying the criticisms of the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which are the deficit of trust between Saigon and the north, the lack of confidence of the Vietnamese people towards their government, the bitter irony of billions of Vietnamese dong going to statue-building amidst a pandemic, and concerns about China’s vaccine. They also miss how the government should be held accountable for the “failure” Tu Anh mentioned, a failure of the government’s own making. While these issues are not dealt with, the deficit of trust remains and could worsen over time.

June 2021 has seen Saigon’s neighbourhoods barricaded, one after another, as more and more new cases emerged. A local man poetically, but sadly, called the city, “Thương thành” (City of Pain).[7] Meanwhile, other cities and provinces are nervously watching. The shortage of vaccines alone is challenging to deal with. Yet this summer sees the Vietnamese government running short of both vaccines and the trust of many of its people.

Bibliography:

[1] T.H. (2021, June 3). Sáng tạo trong thực hiện “‘nhiệm vụ kép.’” Hanoi Moi. https://hanoimoi.com.vn/tin-tuc/Doanh-nghiep/1001503/sang-tao-trong-thuc-hien-nhiem-vu-kep

[2] L.H. (2021a, June 25). Thanh Hóa chọn mẫu xây tượng đài, khu lưu niệm 255 tỷ đồng. VNExpress. https://vnexpress.net/thanh-hoa-chon-mau-xay-tuong-dai-khu-luu-niem-255-ty-dong-4299756.html

[3] Facebook user’s criticism of the government’s handling of COVID-19 in Saigon, including its spending on building statues amidst. (2021, June 25). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/manhcuongvu/posts/10208783322656000

[4] Facebook user’s criticism of the Ministry of Health’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine. (2021, June 4). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=4596848240329511&set=a.121001917914188

[5] Có nên lập quỹ vaccine phòng covid-19. (2021, June 7). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=5787526994651583&id=100001830205620

[6] Hiểu đúng về Quỹ vắc xin phòng chống COVID-19. (2021, June 8). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/vututhanh/posts/10222662130960010

[7] Thương Thành (2021, June 13). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/le.h.lam/posts/10220397389070232

Opinion-SectionCOVID-19Ho Chi Minh CitypicksSaigon

Dan Nguyen

Dan is currently a researcher based in Scotland and supported by European Commission's Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant. Dan's academic and activism interests are centred on civil soc