Why Did The Vietnamese Communist Party Militarize Its Fight Against COVID-19?

Jason Nguyen
Jason Nguyen

When the Ho Chi Minh City authorities decided to deploy troops to enforce an antivirus lockdown during the last week of August 2021, they caught local people off guard.

The move, which came amid the rise in both Covid-19 infections and deaths in the city, has been seen as the last strategic card adopted by the Vietnamese government in its arduous and yet controversial battle to “defeat the virus.”

According to state media, military troops will help enforce the lockdown until September 15, taking on the duty of barring people from going outside and providing necessities to quarantined residents.

However, this has brought little peace of mind to local communities.

Despite firm reassurances from the local government that military troops would take on the duty of buying and delivering food during the quarantine period, panic buying broke out even before the lockdown, while several opinions circulated on social media cast doubt that the preliminary action was to quell potential riots.

Since the beginning of Covid-19, military-style rhetoric against the disease has appeared frequently in Vietnam’s state-run media and newspapers.

Some might argue that these grandiose war-like bombasts and military mobilizations are not exclusively confined to Vietnam. Still, given the country’s authoritarian political landscape where speech is often suppressed and orders arbitrarily passed, these have been abused by the Communist government to spread propaganda and shirk off the responsibilities for its failure to handle Covid-19.

Military rhetoric

Vietnam has used military rhetoric since the early phase of the pandemic, with the flashy anti-coronavirus slogan of “fighting the virus as if we are fighting an enemy.” Depicting coronavirus as “an invader,” Vietnamese officials announced a war on the disease, vowing to “defeat” it through drastic operations and comprehensive “tactics.” [1]

In Vietnam’s epidemiological “war,” each person is portrayed [2] as “a soldier.” Each family is “a fortress” in fighting “an invisible enemy,” [3] namely Covid-19. Healthcare workers have been zealously described as “superheroes,” [4] while infected patients are “subjects” [5] who need to be “swept out” [6] of the community.

Last year, in June, when the Communist country successfully contained the first wave of infections and maintained a zero death toll, its leaders declared “a victory” [7] in the battle against Covid-19. Its success, said [8] the deputy prime minister, was primarily thanks to “the leadership of the Party, the state and the entire political system.”

“Fighting the virus as if we are fighting an enemy,” a street board displaying Vietnam’s anti-coronavirus slogan. Photo: AFP.

Looking from the historical perspective, the Vietnamese Communist Party has since boasted about its significant role in defending its independence from French colonialism and American imperialism.

Likewise, the warlike discourse on the coronavirus disease is nothing but a manipulative tactic utilized by the Communist Party to spread propaganda and reinforce its “legitimate” reign on every aspect of Vietnamese society. By intertwining the use of military rhetoric and the country’s previous military victories, the propaganda department has maneuvered the public into believing that the war against Covid will prevail under the Party’s leadership, just as has happened in the past.

The battleground

While the political rhetoric has dominated Vietnam’s state-run newspapers, a military mobilization is simultaneously taking place in real life.

Since August 23, military troops carrying rifles have been present at roadblocks in Ho Chi Minh City. These soldiers have been tasked with checking commuting permissions or delivering food and medicine to local households. The government called in the military to enforce the policy adopted by the city authorities to limit unnecessary movement to help curb the spread of the infection. Meanwhile, a comprehensive propaganda campaign [9] has been implemented to sway public opinion into supporting this strategy.

Almost a week later, as many expected, the army mobilization program began to expose its incompetence and proved ineffective in relieving the burdens of maintaining a stable food supply delivery to Ho Chi Minh City’s citizens. In reality, substantial shopping demands from customers overloaded the capacity of the army’s workforce, causing essential goods to be congested and accumulated at the supply center; at the same time, Vietnam’s daily Covid-19 confirmed cases continue to reach new milestones [10], nearly every passing week.

The failure of this policy eventually compelled local authorities to discontinue the program, allowing [11] delivery drivers to carry out their everyday operations.

Soldiers with rifles and batons guarding roadblocks in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Doc Lap/ Thanh Nien Online.

So why did the Vietnamese authorities still proceed to implement this strategy, as, from the beginning, it had been proved to be inefficient?

The idea of utilizing military force to solve the problem by enforcing stringent lockdowns is also widely supported by pro-government critics on social media. In explaining the failures of Vietnam’s anti-coronavirus strategy, they argue, it is due to the lack of city residents’ discipline in complying with health guidelines, not from the state’s inefficient policies in handling the pandemic. And imposing stricter measures, such as conducting a martial-style intervention, could help improve the ongoing situation.

According to Huynh Cong Duong, [12] a writer for Luat Khoa Magazine, this tumultuous circumstance represents an underlying effort by the Vietnamese government to shift the blame to citizens. The consequence of this blame-shifting mindset, Huynh Cong Duong concludes, might “pose a significant threat” to civilian efforts on public issues, such as health and social security and the future of policy building in the country.


As the aggressive hyperbole and military approach appear to be of little help, the Vietnamese Communist Party has to adopt more practical methods to get ahead in the fight against the coronavirus. There are two options that the Party might consider.

Firstly, the government needs to admit the loopholes and mistakes in its anti-coronavirus policies and make human rights matters more inclusive in the epidemiological protocols.

Secondly, when the public’s trust in the government and state media is severely eroding, the Communist authorities should recognize and promote the critical role of Vietnam’s civil society organizations and religious groups in picking up the slack where they struggle. [13] Not only do civil society and religions help alleviate the effects of Covid-19 on local communities, but they also become a beacon of reassurance and hope [14] for Vietnamese people during these challenging times, an important mission that none of the Party mouthpieces or army units could ever accomplish.

It is time for the Communist Party to adjust its approach towards the Covid-19 pandemic.

References:

  1. Những chiến thuật của Việt Nam trước “giặc” COVID-19. (2020, April 20). VietnamPlus. https://special.vietnamplus.vn/2020/04/20/chien-thuat-chong-covid-19-viet-nam/
  2. TP.HCM: Phát huy tinh thần “mỗi người dân là một chiến sĩ; mỗi gia đình, tổ dân phố, khu phố là một pháo đài chống dịch.” (2021, May 27). HCDC. https://hcdc.vn/category/thong-tin/viem-phoi-cap-do-virus-ncov/tphcm-phat-huy-tinh-than-moi-nguoi-dan-la-mot-chien-si-moi-gia-dinh-to-dan-pho-khu-pho-la-mot-phao-dai-chong-dich-67931aad42e0787f04c62ab852e6c0d2.html
  3. Hoa, Q. (2021, August 8). Quyết liệt hành động để sớm đẩy lùi “kẻ thù vô hình” COVID-19. VietnamPlus. https://www.vietnamplus.vn/quyet-liet-hanh-dong-de-som-day-lui-ke-thu-vo-hinh-covid19/732256.vnp
  4. Khuong, T. (2021, June 26). Hàng ngàn bức thư tay sưởi ấm các ‘siêu anh hùng’ chống dịch Covid-19 ở TP.HCM. Thanh Nien Online. https://thanhnien.vn/doi-song/hang-ngan-buc-thu-tay-suoi-am-cac-sieu-anh-hung-chong-dich-covid-19-o-tphcm-1400833.html
  5. L.Đ.O. (2021, August 8). Thông tin mới nhất về những đối tượng F0 COVID-19 được cách ly tại nhà. Lao Dong Online. https://laodong.vn/suc-khoe/thong-tin-moi-nhat-ve-nhung-doi-tuong-f0-covid-19-duoc-cach-ly-tai-nha-939623.ldo
  6. Not, T. (2021, August 17). Chủ tịch tỉnh An Giang kêu gọi chung tay quét sạch F0. Lao Dong Online. https://nld.com.vn/thoi-su/chu-tich-tinh-an-giang-keu-goi-chung-tay-quet-sach-f0-20210817114001702.htm
  7. D. Hai & D. Linh, D. H. D. L. (2020, June 14). Tại sao Việt Nam chiến thắng dịch COVID-19? Vietnam Ministry of Health. https://ncov.moh.gov.vn/en/-/tai-sao-viet-nam-chien-thang-dich-covid-19-
  8. Ibid., [7]
  9. Quan, V. V. (2021, August 31). Quân đội “lo từ A đến Z” và những kỹ thuật tuyên truyền chính trị kinh điển. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/08/quan-doi-lo-tu-a-den-z-va-nhung-ky-thuat-tuyen-truyen-chinh-tri-kinh-dien/
  10. Nga, L. (2021, August 30). Vietnam confirms 14,219 new Covid-19 cases. VnExpress. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-confirms-14-219-new-covid-19-cases-4348606.html
  11. Đi chợ hộ tại TP HCM: Quân đội “chào thua”, shipper trở lại. (2021, August 30). BBC Vietnamese. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam-58381909
  12. Duong, H. C. (2021, August 25). Cảm tình quân phiệt trên đường phố Sài Gòn. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/08/cam-tinh-quan-phiet-tren-duong-pho-sai-gon/
  13. Luke Hunt. (2021, July 28). In Vietnam, Civil Society Is Picking up the Slack Where Authorities Struggle. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/in-vietnam-civil-society-is-picking-up-the-slack-where-authorities-struggle/
  14. Thanh, T. (2021, August 22). Trong hoảng loạn, tôn giáo đang giúp trấn an – việc mà nhà nước không làm được. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/08/trong-hoang-loan-ton-giao-dang-giup-tran-an-viec-ma-nha-nuoc-khong-lam-duoc/
SocietyCOVID-19Vietnamese Communist PartyHuman Rights