A review of Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 and its implications
Vietnam planned to have a year packed with activities as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2020 and a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021 term.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation or postponement of numerous events and summit meetings. While it is said that the outbreak has derailed Vietnam’s diplomatic ambitions, the door remains open for Hanoi to transfer its domestic success in fighting the disease into diplomatic achievements.
As the world enters the fourth month of the pandemic, Vietnam boasts a remarkably low infection rate in a country of 95 million people, with only 268 confirmed cases (97 active and 171 recovered) with no deaths as of April 17.
This statistic is even more impressive given the long shared border with China, where the virus originated. Let us review the timeline of Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 and discuss its political implications.
Vietnam prepared for the outbreak before it recorded its first case. The Ministry of Health issued urgent dispatches on outbreak prevention to relevant government agencies on January 16 and to hospitals and clinics nationwide on January 21. Vietnam recorded its first cases on January 23 in Ho Chi Minh City, just two days before the Lunar New Year holidays. Two Chinese nationals from Wuhan arrived in Vietnam on January 13 and traveled throughout the country before being hospitalized on January 23. Shortly after, the Vietnamese government ramped up its response by organizing the National Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention on January 30, the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
On February 1, when the country only recorded six confirmed cases, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed a decision declaring a national epidemic of what was then known only as the novel coronavirus (nCoV). On February 9, the Ministry of Health held a teleconference with the WHO and 700 hospitals at all levels nationwide to disseminate information on nCoV prevention and launched a website to disseminate information to the wider public. On February 11, the WHO officially named the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Aggressive preventive action enabled Vietnam to contain the outbreak, with only 16 cases, all recovered, by the end of February. For further context, the 16th patient was confirmed on February 13 and fully recovered on February 25, meaning that Vietnam went 22 days without any new cases. As a testament to this early success, the U.S. Center for Diseases Control (CDC) decided to take Vietnam off the list of countries with the risk of community spread of the virus.
That early success, however, was impeded by the discovery of patient 17. The patient traveled from Hanoi on February 15 to visit England, Italy, and France before returning to Hanoi on March 2 and failed to follow quarantine protocols. Patient 17 was hospitalized on March 6, and two days later, on March 8, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health Vu Duc Dam declared that Vietnam had officially entered the second phase of the fight against COVID-19. Similar to the first phase, marked by the epidemic declaration, the Vietnamese government escalated its public health response to flatten the curve. On March 10, the Ministry of Health launched the health declaration mobile application NCOVI to help the public report their medical conditions and follow the contact tracing operation, just before the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11. This second phase marked the transition from phase one, in which patients mostly originated from China, to a period when many countries were potential sources of the virus.