Vietnam: In The Middle Of The COVID-19 Pandemic, They Are The Ones Being Left Behind

Jason Nguyen
Jason Nguyen

Since the first infections were detected in the country, Vietnam has surpassed[1] 100,000 Covid-19 cases spanning 62 out of its 63 provinces and more than 1,000 deaths. As the pandemic shows no signs of vanishing anytime soon, especially in the southern provinces, this Southeast Asian country faces both a healthcare and economic crisis.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, as usual, has been deploying propaganda, at maximum capacity, to placate the public. Vigorous slogans, from promises of “leaving no one behind” to “protecting people’s lives remain a top priority” [2], are dominating state media and pro-government online groups on social media.

However, the reality is far gloomier than the Party’s political discourse.

Besides revealing the darker side [3] of Vietnam’s epidemiological strategy, the pandemic also deepens the increasingly widening gap between the haves and have-nots and between the people with power and those without.

The Workers

According to the Vietnam General Statistics Office report, [4] nearly 13 million workers were negatively affected by the economic downturn caused by the third and fourth wave of Covid-19 outbreaks. This number includes [5] about 557,000 people who lost their jobs, 4.3 million people who had their working hours cut, those who had to take time off from work or had to rotate shifts, and another 8.5 million who had their income reduced.

The pandemic has had an impartial effect on the Vietnamese labor market, but so far, freelance and manual workers are among those who got hit the hardest.

In Vietnam, the term “freelance workers” has a very different connotation compared to the West. This workforce primarily consists of senior citizens, the impoverished, and college graduates, who lack physical health and certain skills that the average employer often deems necessary. They are known for doing various unskilled jobs, such as being street vendors, motorbike drivers, lottery ticket sellers, and the like.

These freelance workers usually rely on their own labor to make ends meet daily while lacking health insurance and many personal savings, so they are at a greater risk of getting infected with the coronavirus or becoming financially strained under lockdown measures and other anti-coronavirus restrictions. Furthermore, stagnant economic activities, coupled with the government’s ineffective financial assistance schemes, seem to add [6] to their struggle.

A street vendor in Da Nang City. Photo: RFA.

At the same time, factory workers, the backbone of Vietnam’s export-oriented economy, are also facing another set of challenges in the midst of the pandemic.

When coronavirus infections started to spread inside many factories during the latest outbreak, most workers were required to be quarantined inside their workplaces while continuing production in a strategy known as “dual goal.” [7] This strategy aimed to control infections while at the same time maintaining industrial production.

However, risky working environments and the factories’ poor accommodations have sparked anger among many workers, causing them to flee their workplaces. Meanwhile, on social media, many people have also expressed their disagreement with the decisions of local authorities, repeatedly condemning[8] them for compromising workers’ health for cash.

Besides rigid anti-coronavirus measures, the “ho khau” system, a household registration scheme used in Vietnam, has created another burden for these unskilled workers, especially for migrants from poorer provinces seeking manual jobs in big cities and industrial zones.

More specifically, this household registration system denies migrant workers the eligibility to receive public services and welfare assistance where they temporarily live and work, such as healthcare and education, unless they register with local police.

Many migrant workers chose to return to their hometowns by motorbikes. Photo: Người Huế ở Sì Gòn (Facebook group)/ BBC Vietnamese.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s bureaucratic public services, alongside rampant corruption in the registration process, leaves many of them living illegally without legitimate status. As a result, when several southern industrial provinces and the economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City remained under lockdown to battle the latest outbreak of Covid-19, a large number of these employees were left with no choice but to return to their hometowns to avoid infection and to overcome the financial difficulties caused by their unemployment.

Over the past few weeks, a massive exodus of migrant workers has been seen, with workers risking their lives on arduous journeys to go back home. Many choose motorbikes, and some attempted to make it on foot, [9] with several unfortunate souls losing their lives along the way. In response, several provinces have publicized official announcements citing the Covid-19 infection risk to urge migrant workers not to return home [10] or to “go back to where they started.” [11]

This dire situation has led to an outcry on Vietnamese social media. Many users are questioning the government’s response and criticizing its failure to provide financial assistance to these people, secure safer means of homebound transportation, and provide housing in adequate quarantine facilities.

A worker walked more than 180 km in 16 days from Dak Lak Province to his sister’s house in Binh Phuoc Province, as he did not have enough money for a bus ride. Photo: Zing News/ provided by the worker.

Inmates, Prisoners of Conscience, and Addicts

Multiple prisons and rehabilitation centers, especially in several southern localities, have also become new hotspots of infections during the fourth wave of the Covid-19 outbreak in Vietnam.

On July 7, local authorities declared [12] that Chi Hoa Prison, a detention center located in Ho Chi Minh City, had recorded more than 80 people infected with Covid-19, including detainees and correctional officers. As the situation worsened, riots began to erupt [13] inside the facility as the rapid spread of coronavirus fueled fear among hundreds of inmates.

A few weeks later, on July 23, all of the staff and addicts [14] at Bo La Rehabilitation Center, a facility located in the southern province of Binh Duong, tested positive for Covid-19. At the same time, a mental health hospital in Ho Chi Minh City also diverted a part of its functionality to treat Covid-19 patients, including many infected mental health patients, as surging cases overloaded healthcare capacity in the city.

The infrastructure of detention and rehabilitation centers in Vietnam in general and other public facilities have long been infamously known for their degradation, poor living conditions, and maltreatment of prisoners and patients.

Riot police vans were seen leaving the Chi Hoa Prison after reportedly being deployed to quell riots. Photo courtesy: Dinh Van/ VnExpress.

Several family members of prisoners of conscience have also expressed their concerns over the safety of their relatives amid the Covid-19 situation. During interviews with RFA Vietnamese, [16] many expressed concerns that the proximity of sleeping quarters, poor living conditions, and limited information about the prisoners threaten the well-being of the people being kept inside the cells.

Currently, prisoners, addicts, and mental health patients are not part of the official list [17] of 16 qualified priority groups to receive Covid-19 vaccinations, despite promises of future vaccination opportunities. However, given Vietnam’s ongoing vaccine shortage, these people will likely be the last to receive the vaccine.

Other Vulnerable Groups

The latest vaccination scandals [18] include a woman and her husband being prioritized to get vaccinated thanks to her father’s connections and a decision from Ho Chi Minh City authorities to lend Vingroup, a local conglomerate, 5,000 Moderna doses from the COVAX initiative to inoculate its staff, raise questions about equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine for all Vietnamese citizens.

From a broader perspective, the political landscape in Vietnam is deepening the inequality in vaccine distribution. Government officials with strong connections or powerful corporations with economic clout can “cut in line” [19] to get vaccinated first, taking away inoculation opportunities from others, especially those who are most vulnerable once infected.

As of July 19, [20] Ho Chi Minh City has officially begun vaccinating older adults and patients with underlying health conditions in the fifth phase of its inoculation campaign. Still, authorities have neither provided further information on the screening process nor medical assistance should side effects occur in these high-risk groups. Meanwhile, vaccination schedules for other vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, war veterans, and the disabled have remained undisclosed.

Homeless people in Ho Chi Minh City amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Lao Dong.

The Communist Party, since the very first days of its establishment, has prided itself on being “a Party of the people, of the working class.” [21] The Party manifests its ideology in the notion that their ultimate goals are “nothing other than the interests of the [working] class, the people and the nation” to build a more “democratic, wealthy and equal Vietnam.”

Almost a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has fully uncovered what the Party has been dedicating its whole lifespan to achieving benefits for itself and those living dependent on the corrupt system. Ironically, the poor, migrant workers or prisoners of conscience have never been of great concern to the Communist regime.

As the dark clouds of Covid-19 continue to loom large over Vietnam, the tragic fates of those voiceless and powerless people mentioned above seem astoundingly more genuine than the Party’s empty promises.

Bibliography:

  1. Số liệu Covid-19 tại Việt Nam. (2021, August 2). VnExpress. https://vnexpress.net/covid-19/covid-19-viet-nam
  2. Tiep, P. (2021, May 16). Quyết tâm đẩy lùi dịch COVID-19, bảo vệ sức khỏe nhân dân là trên hết. Báo Công An Nhân Dân. https://cand.com.vn/Su-kien-Binh-luan-thoi-su/Quyet-tam-day-lui-dich-COVID-19-bao-ve-suc-khoe-nhan-dan-la-tren-het-i605680/
  3. Jason, N. (2021, July 21). How The Latest Outbreak Reveals The Darker Side Of Vietnam’s Anti-Coronavirus Strategy. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/07/how-the-latest-outbreak-reveals-the-darker-side-of-vietnams-anti-coronavirus-strategy/
  4. Bang, L. (2021, July 7). Over 1.1 million people unemployed, nearly 13 million others affected by Covid-19 pandemic. Vietnamnet. https://vietnamnet.vn/en/society/over-1-1-million-people-unemployed-nearly-13-million-others-affected-by-covid-19-pandemic-753558.html
  5. VOA News. (2021, July 16). Vietnam Shops for Vaccines in Hopes of Avoiding More Lockdowns. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/vietnam-shops-vaccines-hopes-avoiding-more-lockdowns
  6. RFA. (2021, June 7). Lao động tự do chật vật trong đợt dịch COVID-19 thứ tư. Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/freelance-workers-struggle-during-the-fourth-covid-19-outbreak-06072021145713.html
  7. Việt Nam có nên vận dụng “mục tiêu kép” trong lúc này? (2021, May 27). Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/should-vietnam-maintain-dual-goal-now-05272021111728.html
  8. Ibid., [7]
  9. Nhi, T. (2021, July 26). Người đàn ông đi bộ 16 ngày từ Đắk Lắk về Bình Phước để tránh dịch. Zing News. https://zingnews.vn/nguoi-dan-ong-di-bo-16-ngay-tu-dak-lak-ve-binh-phuoc-de-tranh-dich-post1243231.html
  10. Nguyen, C. (2021, August 1). Xót xa cả gia đình gặp nạn trên đường về quê tránh dịch Covid-19. Người Lao Động. https://nld.com.vn/thoi-su/xot-xa-ca-gia-dinh-gap-nan-tren-duong-ve-que-tranh-dich-covid-19-20210801092125848.htm
  11. Ngoc, N. (2021, July 31). Từ 1/8, dân Quảng Ngãi buộc quay lại nơi xuất phát. Tiền Phong. https://tienphong.vn/tu-1-8-dan-quang-ngai-buoc-quay-lai-noi-xuat-phat-post1360999.tpo
  12. Tinh, D. (2021, July 7). TP.HCM: Ổ dịch tại Trại tạm giam Chí Hòa có 81 ca nhiễm Covid-19. Thanh Niên Online. https://thanhnien.vn/thoi-su/tphcm-o-dich-tai-trai-tam-giam-chi-hoa-co-81-ca-nhiem-covid-19-1410289.html
  13. Trại Chí Hòa: Hàng trăm phạm nhân nổi dậy sau khi 81 người nhiễm COVID-19 trong trại. (2021, July 7). Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/chi_hoa_riot-07072021052110.html
  14. Canh, N. (2021, July 23). Toàn bộ những người ở cơ sở cai nghiện ma tuý Bố Lá dương tính với SARS-CoV-2. Báo Công An Nhân Dân. https://cand.com.vn/y-te/Toan-bo-nhung-nguoi-o-co-so-cai-nghien-ma-tuy-Bo-La-duong-tinh-i621306/
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  19. Minh, N. (2021, July 22). Có bao nhiêu “cháu ngoại” đã trót lọt chen hàng để tiêm vaccine trước? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/07/co-bao-nhieu-chau-ngoai-da-trot-lot-chen-hang-de-tiem-vaccine-truoc/
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SocietyCOVID-19VietnamHo Chi Minh City