When the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the most developed healthcare systems and economies in the world, Vietnam’s reliance on mass testing, compulsory quarantine, and proactive contact tracing led to global recognition of the country’s ability to control the spread of infections and keep the death toll low.
Vietnam’s early success  was hailed as one of the region’s ideal anti-COVID models for its low cost, proactive prevention, and transparency of pandemic policies.
The Vietnamese government also gained substantial public support for its mobilization of “rescue flights” to repatriate Vietnamese citizens who have been stuck abroad due to border restrictions.
With the ostentatious slogan of “leaving no one behind,” Vietnamese authorities prided themselves  on their timely and humanitarian efforts to rescue its citizens who wished to return home. Official statistics show  that government-organized flights have carried more than 200,000 overseas Vietnamese safely back home since December 9, 2021.
But everything changed suddenly with the arrival of the fourth wave of COVID-19. The rapid transmission of the contagious and deadly Delta variant soon exposed shortcomings in the government’s obstinate adherence to its zero-COVID policy and its complacency in ramping up vaccination programs.
On May 30, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced  the city’s first phase of social distancing to curb the newly emerged COVID clusters. According to the new ordinance, city residents were encouraged to stay home, except for necessary duties, and keep a safe distance from other people when going out.
These social distancing measures, once limited to the Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area, soon escalated into a region-wide lockdown on July 18, as the number of COVID-19 cases surged in many of Vietnam’s southern provinces.
On August 23, local authorities deployed military forces to Ho Chi Minh City to deliver necessities and assist with the city’s lockdown in a desperate attempt to eliminate COVID-19 transmissions. During this time, city residents were prohibited from going outside, even to buy food or medicines. This radical zero-COVID approach created a humanitarian crisis as Vietnam’s most vulnerable populations bore the brunt of the pandemic’s adverse effects.
While many Vietnamese were frustrated and dissatisfied with the government’s controversial COVID-19 policies, the political environment in Vietnam, where public opinion is often sidelined, and administrative power is unchecked by a free press or civil society, nurtures an ideal environment for corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power to thrive amid a national crisis.
The Viet A COVID-19 Test Kits Scandal
It is not an exaggeration to say that Vietnam’s anti-COVID program is a tale of two major corruption scandals. The government’s mismanagement of Viet A Technology Corp., a local manufacturer and supplier of medical equipment, is one of them.
Vietnam’s mass testing campaign, which was mobilized in the early phase of the pandemic to track and identify COVID-19 patients, initially earned global praise as a low-cost and efficient antivirus protocol.
In early 2020, a coordinated project between Viet A and Vietnam’s Military Medical Academy, which focused on researching and producing COVID-19 test kits, was kickstarted to accommodate the country’s robust testing campaign. The company reportedly manufactured and supplied multi-million dollar test kit contracts to nearly all of Vietnam’s 63 localities to help local authorities prevent and control virus transmissions.
Viet A’s researchers were praised  by state media and government officials for their “tireless efforts” and “creativity” in carrying out the project, while its “high quality” test kits were said to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).
It was later revealed that Viet A test kits were never authorized by the WHO and the company’s registered headquarters was, in fact,  a rented house with no employees or research facility. On January 21, Vietnamese customs declared  that Viet A imported three million quick COVID-19 test kits from China at less than $1 per kit. The sources for Viet A’s other medical supplies, including RT-PCR COVID-19 detection kits, remain unclear.
On December 18, 2021, Phan Quoc Viet, founder and director-general of Viet A, was arrested and investigated for his attempt to allegedly inflate the price of  the company’s COVID-19 test kits and bribe the provincial authorities to purchase their medical equipment at an excessive cost. It was estimated that the price of each COVID-19 test kit supplied by Viet A was increased by 45 percent, and the company disbursed around $35.2 million in kickbacks to its partners.
On June 8, 2022, Nguyen Thanh Long, Vietnam’s health minister, and Chu Ngoc Anh, the mayor of Hanoi, became the latest high-profile figures to be arrested  for further investigation into the massive manipulation of the price of COVID-19 test kits. They were dismissed from their official positions and expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party.
According to statistics from state-owned Tuoi Tre Online, more than 60 suspects,  many of them government officials, provincial CDC leaders, and state-run hospital managers, have been detained or subjected to investigation for taking bribes for their involvement in the price gouging and distribution of Viet A test kits.
Corruption Tarnishs The Rescue Flights Program
While the Viet A test kits incident stirred public discussion about the effectiveness and transparency of government-approved programs, the corruption scandal regarding repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens outraged  the public because it involved the alleged exploitation and profiting from the desperate conditions of many Vietnamese people stranded overseas.
Vietnam closed its borders to all international commercial flights from March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. The Vietnamese government later introduced and operated a program of repatriation flights for Vietnamese people who were stranded abroad and wished to return home.
But high ticket prices, limited space, and the opaque procedures in choosing individuals eligible for these flights raised concerns and sparked anger among many applicants.
According to an Al Jazeera article  interviewing Vietnamese citizens applying for these repatriation flights, the price of a ticket was reportedly 20 times higher than the price of a pre-pandemic commercial flight. One Vietnamese student abroad said that he was finally able to purchase an overpriced homebound ticket after a five-month wait. The consular authorities told him he should “be grateful” about it.
The exclusive role of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a gatekeeper  to control the flow of people entering Vietnam during the pandemic, and their sole authority in picking and approving tourism companies permitted for such rescue programs, became a fertile ground for corruption and abuse of power.
On April 14, To Anh Dung, deputy minister of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the latest person to be arrested  for allegedly receiving bribes in organizing repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens stranded abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previously, Nguyen Thi Huong Lan, general director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Consular Department, and three other consular officials were detained  on January 28 for further investigation into their suspected “seeking personal gain” and “taking advantage of State policy” in favoring  certain tourism companies and authorizing them to organize repatriation flights.
According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security Spokesperson Lieutenant General To An Xo, early investigations suggest that the operators could profit up to 2 billion dong (US$86,100)  from each rescue flight; meanwhile, nearly 2,000 of these trips operated since the implementation of the program.
Several analysts and researchers believe that the Vietnamese public’s trust in their government was severely eroded after the recent COVID-19 scandals. The people were disappointed and angry when systemic corruption occurred amid a national health crisis as many government officials abused the zero-COVID policy to benefit themselves while disregarding public health.
“These cases are really devastating for those people, and of course, it erodes the trust of many Vietnamese people toward the government,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher at Victoria University in Wellington, referring to the corruption in repatriation flights and Viet A company, in an interview  with the Australian broadcaster ABC.
Giang added that Vietnam had made encouraging milestones to combat corruption but that the country still lacks independent mechanisms to effectively solve the root cause of the problem.
Giang further argued that “it’s impossible for Vietnam to actually move forward” in trying to solve corruption by removing corrupt officials rather than fixing structural problems.
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