State Media And Social Media During The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Tale Of Two Cities In Vietnam

Jason Nguyen
Jason Nguyen

It is probably one of the worst times for Vietnam right now. The latest wave of Covid-19 infections has pushed Vietnam into both a healthcare and a media crisis. Once envied for its low death toll and effective methods to contain the virus, the Communist nation is now struggling to keep itself afloat as the rapid transmission of the new Delta variant overwhelms the healthcare capacity of its many provinces and municipalities.

Last year, when the first cases of Covid-19 began to emerge in the country, the Vietnamese government actively utilized its state media apparatus to promote anti-coronavirus measures, deliver nationalistic and heroic messages [1] to target local audiences, as well as project its initial success in containing the disease by quoting praises from international media and experts.

However, the latest outbreak, which created an unprecedented crisis, has driven state media to adopt new propaganda tactics. Similar to the Chinese authorities’ media strategy, [2] when coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan, the Vietnamese government proactively covered up the truth, silenced independent voices, and pushed optimistic narratives to sway public attention away from the reality on the ground.

Amid the worsening Covid-19 predicament, many social media users in Vietnam chose social networks to share their personal experiences and to seek financial and medical help from the community. This circumstance has thus created a stark contrast between the government’s efforts to portray a positive picture of the pandemic and the appalling stories shared by ordinary citizens.

The Vietnamese Magazine has analyzed the contents from both state media and public postings on social networking sites in Vietnam to create a more comprehensive picture of the current situation through three main criteria: the reports of state-owned media regarding the death toll, the government’s assistance for affected individuals, and the vaccination program.

The Death Toll Cover-up

As of this writing, Vietnam has recorded [3] over 265,000 Covid-19 infections, with around 100,000 recoveries and more than 5,000 deaths. The country’s recent daily infections tally is about 6,000 to 9,000 cases.

Since the beginning of August, when the coronavirus situation began to worsen, numerous real-life stories and videos have started circulating on Vietnamese social media. These postings, which are done primarily by ordinary citizens, exposed the grim condition of Vietnam’s healthcare facilities, the struggle of impoverished people in quarantined areas, and the harrowing scenes of long lines of ambulances carrying the coffins of Covid-19 victims to cemeteries.

Despite their accurate portrayal of the current situation during the time they were released, that footage was mainly absent on the country’s official news channels. On the other hand, state media has ramped up its censorship on these disturbing details and has also diverted public attention towards the mishandling of the pandemic by other foreign countries.

A long trail of ambulances was seen parked on the road leading to Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Le Phan/ Tuoi Tre Online.

In the past few weeks, when daily Covid-19 mortality rates began to spike, almost all major newspapers and broadcasting channels in the country avoided mentioning or reporting [4] on the details of the death toll. Instead, their reports focused on the number of recoveries and emphasized the severity of the situations in other neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

For instance, Thanh Nien Online, a state-owned newspaper, last reported [5] on coronavirus-related deaths in Vietnam on July 29, despite its previous regular updates of the number. This news outlet nevertheless diverted its reports on death tolls from Vietnam to Indonesia [6] and Thailand [7].

Other online news outlets, such as Vietnamnet [8] and Tuoi Tre Online,[9] last reported on the number of Covid-19 deaths in Vietnam on July 30 and August 3, respectively. At the same time, VTV, the Communist Party’s most significant broadcasting mouthpiece, asked [10] its audience to spread “positive information” instead of dwelling on “negative and less optimistic” news to overcome the pandemic.

This manipulative approach to the media further raises public concerns about the authenticity of the government’s official statistics, and at the same time, casts lingering suspicion among Vietnamese citizens on whether or not the actual scenario is far worse than the state media’s reportage.

Welfare for the Poor: Promises and Reality

Besides grappling with the surge of new Covid-19 infections, Vietnam is also facing an economic and welfare crisis as the livelihoods of millions of its citizens are being jeopardized for the sake of rigid anti-coronavirus measures.

During the lockdown periods, a significant number of civil society groups on social media, as well as SOSmap.net, a project established by citizens, have begun operations in Vietnam. These social and technical incentives act as open platforms to connect bringers of goodwill to those in need. People can post their requests or promises to help on these platforms for a variety of purposes – from donating food and providing financial aid, to giving medical advice, and the like.

These online platforms, despite differing in scope and geographic location, all have one thing in common: they are flooded with waves of hopeless calls for help from ordinary citizens, [11] of all of whom are negatively affected by harsh lockdown measures. In the majority of cases, the victims are contractors and manual workers who face financial difficulties or food shortages due to unemployment; many of them receive little or no support from the government.

A mass exodus of workers has also been seen fleeing [12] Ho Chi Minh City and other southern industrial provinces as the number of coronavirus cases surged in the region, while many factory workers and prisoners of conscience are at risk of getting infected due to poor working and living conditions.

An exodus of people, mostly contracting workers, have fled Ho Chi Minh City to overcome financial difficulties due to strict lockdown measures. Photo: Thanh Quan/ Thanh Nien Online.

But on state media, their hopeless voices are barely mentioned. They are often drowned-out to pave the way for a medley of political discourses,[13] victory speeches, [14] and firm guarantees of “letting no one starve” [15] from the government. According to our analysis, mainstream newspapers and broadcasting channels in Vietnam generally choose to report only on the positive sides of the migrant workers’ crisis, praise [16] the local authorities for their “timely” assistance for affected families, and simultaneously avoid mentioning the country leaders’ mistakes which helped lead to the current situation.

Needless to say, the propaganda narratives mentioned above have two primary aims: placating the public and circumventing the Vietnamese authorities’ own failure in providing basic necessities to its people. Since freedom of the press is a concept that does not exist in Vietnam, the media is nothing but the Party’s effective tool to bend public opinion to its will.

An article from a state-owned newspaper claimed that all contracting workers in Ho Chi Minh City had been financially supported (left), while a local neighborhood argued that they had received nothing from the government (right). Photo: screenshot/ Facebook post.

The Vaccination Triad

Meanwhile, as Vietnam struggles to contain the spread of Covid-19, its citizens are encouraged to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity [17] “in the shortest amount of time.” According to official statistics, [18] as of July 31, around 1.5 million vaccine doses have been given in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest Covid-19 hotspot, while health authorities ensure that “around 99 percent of the population above 18 years of age [in the city] will be vaccinated.”

The same rhetoric of hope and assurance, as expected, are also dominating the country’s state media.

Although the vaccination plan sounds promising, state-owned media fail to consider three key shortcomings that could hinder the country’s progress towards achieving its immunity goal. These challenges include Vietnam’s ongoing shortage of Covid-19 vaccines, low rates of immunization [19] and the people’s hesitancy to get Chinese-made jabs.

Earlier, a decision from Ho Chi Minh City authorities to use the Chinese-made Sinopharm in its inoculation program due to the vaccine scarcity problem has drawn public opposition and criticism. People’s concerns over the efficacy of these vaccinations, the significant lack of transparency of government officials about their vaccination status and which types of vaccines were given to the officials, and deep-rooted anti-China sentiments among many Vietnamese are believed to be the reasons for such reactions.

On social media platforms such as Facebook, public opinion expressingobjections to Chinese vaccines have sparked thousands of interactions. At the same time, many of the commenters claimed that they would reject the made-in-China vaccinations if given a chance.

The hostility also takes place under actual circumstances. A week ago, long lines of local people were seen angrily leaving a vaccination venue in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. They were informed by the vaccination venue that they would be given Sinopharm shots since that center had run out of AstraZeneca vaccines.

Local people seen leaving a vaccination venue in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, after being informed that they would receive Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccines. Photo: screenshot/ VOV.

On state-owned news channels, none of these stories has been adequately reported. Instead, the common headlines regarding the current vaccination campaign in Vietnam mostly boast [20] the country’s rapid rate of inoculations, reassure [21] the public of an abundant vaccine supply, or urge [22] the people to get Sinopharm while endorsing its high effectiveness against Covid-19.

The ongoing vaccination fiasco is yet another example of the Communist Party attempting to control the flow of public discourse, debate, and opinion.

The stories they peddle in mainstream media and the experiences of ordinary citizens rarely overlap; they portray two different truths: the alternative reality of the Party and the reality on the ground.

Once again, the vulnerable people’s frantic calls for help are suppressed and overpowered by the Party’s extravagant mouthpieces.

Bibliography:

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  2. Muyi Xiao, Drew Jordan, Meg Felling And Christoph Koettl. (2020, March 18). How China Is Reshaping the Coronavirus Narrative. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/asia/100000007024807/china-coronavirus-propaganda.html
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  18. Ibid., [17]
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  22. Nam, K. (2021, August 12). Đừng để thốt lên “Giá như. . .” khi đã quá muộn. Trang Tin Điện Tử Đảng Bộ Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh. https://www.hcmcpv.org.vn/tin-tuc/dung-de-thot-len-gia-nhu%E2%80%A6-khi-da-qua-muon-1491882335
SocietyFreedom of Expressionfree pressCOVID-19