4th May 2020
Director of the Center for Community Development and Climate Change Adaptation (CHCC), Vietnam
COMMUNICATION AS AN EFFECTIVE STRATEGY TO COMBAT COVID-19:
THE CASE OF VIETNAM
In the early months of 2020, as the COVID-19 outbreak gripped Wuhan, Vietnam stood as one of the most vulnerable countries for further virus spread. Vietnam shares a 1,500 km border with southern China; it is also a developing country with limited resources and a large population of 95 million people.
Yet, as of the middle of April 2020, the country has only 267 confirmed infections, more than a half of which are reported as fully recovered. Fortunately, the country has no recorded deaths because of COVID-19.
As with all countries, the ways that Vietnam has responded to the threat has been varied and multi-layered. (For a timeline of interventions see the INGSA Policy-making Tracker)
One of the ways that the Vietnamese response might have differed from other countries is that the government has heavily relied on the power of communication to invite its people - from all walks of life – to join the Government-led fight against the disease. Communication has reached the most remote communities thanks to Vietnam’s nationwide public loudspeaker system and a network of mass organizations.
To add to the diversity and quality of communication, they have employed many different communicative slogans. For example, “we love you so we go to the frontline. If you love us, please stay indoors”. What this means is that due to the easy transmission of the virus, the best way for those in the rear to participate in the fight is to stay home.
This adds to the frontline workers’ efforts to end the spread of the pandemic in communities. Another slogan that is often heard these days is that “if you are a patriot, just stay home”. Although this latter slogan is differently worded, it conveys exactly the same message..
Overall, central to all the communicative slogans that have been employed is the importance of togetherness and cooperation between those in the frontline and those in the rear, as a pre-condition of gaining success against the virus.
The question is how, in a developing country, was official messaging and information disseminated to make sure that enough people received it in time?
How COVID-19 is communicated in Vietnam?
At the start of the outbreak, the communication to Vietnamese citizens was centrally-led. It focused on communicating about the spread of the disease and its potential deadly impacts on local lives and livelihoods. At this stage it was necessarily centralised, meaning information was vertically communicated starting from the central Government down to communities.
In this strategy, the national television has played the main role. However, as the pandemic has continued and its risks have increased, the communication strategy has also changed.
While vertical communication through the national TV remains, horizontal and informal channels have subsequently been mobilized. For example, a door-to-door method has been applied, with leaflets being provided.
Of these latter methods, what has been most interesting has been is the application of the public loudspeaker system that is available in all cities and provinces across the country. This has been accompanied by innovative mobile communications, for example communication mini-trucks and motorbikes in remote areas.
1. The use of loudspeaker system:
Historically, the loudspeaker system can be traced back to war times (since 1945), during which time, the system was used as the main communication system within the army, and between the army and ordinary people. It was especially used to inform community of a potential risk that was about to happen, for example an operation of the enemy’s bomb drops. As such, the loudspeaker system has remained active until the present (https://plo.vn/xa-hoi/loa-phuong-nho-va-quen-677899.html).
The system continues to be an established bridge of the information gap between government - at all levels - and local communities. Vietnam has a public loudspeaker system in every community across the country. The system remains active and, depending on the community, generally operates everyday.
Whenever there is a new policy or decision that will be made and/or an announcement, for example, regarding an upcoming activity in a community, the system is mobilized to inform communities. While it is unsure if everyone expects to hear the loudspeaker everyday, it is certain that is an established and accepted form of communication.
For the COVID-19 response, the system normally operates twice a day in the early morning (depending on community, but normally around 5:30 am), by which time people have got up. The other is in late afternoon (around 5 pm), by which time people have returned home (Link).
Its operation and duration depends on the local situation, so can provide context-sensitive information.
This method of communication is low-cost, easy and effective.
1a. Public Perception of the Loudspeaker System
As a government-initiated public communication system, the loudspeaker network can be described as a communication channel between government (both national and ward-level) and communities.
It is sometimes noisy and loud. Some even find it annoying. In Vietnam there is saying, to be ‘as loud mouth as the ward loudspeaker’. The saying is used to describe someone that is loud and talkative.
What has recently caught public attention is that the chairman of Hanoi People’s Committee, has suggested dismantling the system. He believed that the system has now completed its historical mission of communication in the past decades. His suggestion has attracted public attention of all kinds (https://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loa_ph%C6%B0%E1%BB%9Dng).
Overall, it seems to be agreed that the system be replaced, not removed. A public communication channel between the local government and the community is recognised as important. Advocates for the removal/upgrade of the loudspeaker suggest that the government should be making more effective use of the internet revolution. They believe that it (Industry 4.0) has a far better ability to ensure better communication. It is wireless – so it also helps the city get rid of the current ugly bundles of wires.
1b. Functioning of the loudspeaker system
As the loudspeakers are part of the ward and community level system, there are local staff in charge of operating the system. Normally, the one that is in charge of social and cultural issues in the ward/community is in charge of operating the system. The loudspeaker system is not a highly technology one and therefore does not require sophisticated skills to operate it. The staff should already have lots of experience in operating it.
As the system is already in place and culturally accepted, Vietnam has not needed to invest in setting up a new one in the context of COVID-19. This is important for both the speed of government response and in the context of resource constraints in a developing country like Vietnam.
Because the current loudspeaker system is already in operation and is a very low cost system, the attention has been more on what to communicate rather than how.
What to communicate is the key to effectiveness. Messages communicated through this channel are simple, direct and repeated (sometimes quite annoying) with a focus on: (i) danger of COVID-19; (ii) its potentially deadly impact on local communities; (iii) how to mitigate risks of being infected; (iv) importance of participating in the Government-led efforts.
In between communication times, communicative songs are often integrated to add to the quality of communication. One of them, Ghen Co Vy, has crossed the border to reach other countries, such as America and France (https://tuoitre.vn/ghen-co-vy-duoc-truyen-hinh-phap-dua-tin-chung-ta-dang-nghe-bai-hat-cua-nam-2020030512480099.htm; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3pAEPCVp2g).
Through the loudspeakers, local communities are encouraged to join the government-led efforts in identifying potentially infected areas and cases and report them to local authorities by calling local health departments (they are provided with numbers to call in leaflet and texts).
Central to the success of Vietnam’s response has been the critical need to mobilize communities’ full engagement and support in the fight – the loudspeaker system has been very important in this.
Figure 2: A member of local Youth's Union visited a local family to communicate about the transmission of COVID-19 and delivered leaflet about the disease
Figure 3: young people from YU delivering leaflet about the spread of COVID-19 in marketplaces.
2. The use of mass organization networks
Mass organization can be differently defined. In Vietnam, mass organizations refer to organizations such as Women’s Union (WU), Farmers’ Association and Youths Union (YU).
Vietnam has a strong network of mass organizations across the country. These organizations are an integral part of local political structures. These network reach every neighbourhood and suburb, including marketplaces. In all communities, local women and young people are encouraged to join the organizations. So, most of the people in communities are members of these respective groups.
While WU consists of women, YU consists of young people – male and female. These organizations provide a mechanism for two-way communication. The government is able to disseminate information to communities, and alternatively, communities are able to express local interest and preferred priorities up to government.
The organizations bridge the gap between communities and government, especially at the grassroots level like villages. For example, in implementing the government’s birth planning strategy previously, these organizations played a key role in raising public awareness and calling for local engagement and support.
In the fight against HIV, they also played a key role. They not only communicated about how to stop the transmission of the disease, they also communicated about social changes, including social discrimination of HIV positive people and their family members.
In the context of the spread of COVID-19, the mass organizations have engaged proactively in communicating the government’s policies and decisions, for example applying social distancing, lockdown at nationwide level, every day hygiene practices like hand washing with soaps every ten minutes, or wearing masks when going out.
In response to the quick spread of COVID-19, these organizations have been a key taskforce in communicating about the spread of the pandemic in communities. They have been fully mobilized as an informal communication channel to communicate messages about the transmission of the disease and how to avoid the transmission etc.
A key strategy they have adopted is the door-to-door visits as shown in Figure 3 above. Members of these organizations come and knock on every door to deliver messages in the form of leaflets backed up by verbal communication. This approach is believed to be effective and adds to the loudspeaker system’s effectiveness.
In places where public loudspeaker systems can’t reach properly because of the social and economic dynamics, other forms of informal communication methods have been mobilized.
These include direct visits to the places, such as marketplaces as shown in Figure 3 above. Mobile communication trucks with relevant slogans are also used. The truck passes by the marketplaces a number of times a day to call for locals’ engagement in the fight and also to strengthen locals’ awareness of the spread of the pandemic. (Please see Figure 4 above)
In remote areas where communication through loudspeakers system is not effective because people live more sparsely or in the absence of the system, a mobile communication system is applied. As shown in Figures 5 and 6 below, motorbikes fitted with a loudspeaker can be found riding through communities. These bikes can reach every corner of the community without difficulty.
Figure 5: Mobile communication about spread of COVID-19 in a rural remote commune in a province in North of Vietnam
Figure 6: A woman on her way to communities to communicate about the spread of COVID-19 in a rural remote commune in a middle region province of Vietnam
Communication about the spread of COVID-19 in Vietnam is not limited to a certain gender. While, as shown in Figures 5 and 7 males can be a communicator, as shown in Figure 6 females are also employed to be communicators.
Vietnam is a home to many different ethnic minorities, each having its own tradition and language. This is a challenge regarding communication about spread of COVID-19, because not everyone can understand Vietnamese, which is the official language used in legal documents and at schools.
In such cases, the verbal communication language is often translated into a local language to reflect ethnicity of the community. The purpose is to ensure locals understand messages being communicated. For example, if it is a Khmer community as shown in Figure 7 below, the language of communication is in local language. This is to better ensure locals can get the messages and understand them correctly.
3. A brief discussion
What Vietnam’s response highlights is that methods to communicate risk and promote government interventions have to be applied in context. Communication to citizens is critically important for how effectively a country can respond. Speed and effectiveness of this messaging can play a major role in limiting the transmission of the virus.
Being aware of its limited access to resources, including a limited health care system, Vietnam has chosen to approach the pandemic in a different way that better reflects its situation and contextual conditions. On one hand, they declared action against the outbreak very early in January.
On the other, they have made full use of all forms of communication that are available across the nation. The aim has been to mobilize full engagement of all people from all walks of life, public and private, across the country for the fight. Their strategy of local participation has proven to be successful as part of the government’s overall strategy.
However, while no doubt that people across the nation can easily access the disseminated messages everyday through the public loudspeaker system and mobile communications and their personal devices such as mobile phones (they should receive a free of charge text from the Ministry of Health every morning regarding spread of COVID-19), it is not sure if they all have the ability to interpret the messages they receive correctly.
This is critical because a majority of residents that live in remote mountainous areas of Vietnam, are ethnic minorities. Their ability to interpret and understand the messages correctly in some cases is limited. In such a case, quality of communication is affected. As a result, objective of communication is not achieved, or just in part.
While it is not sure when the existing loudspeaker system will be replaced with a more technological system, what is certain is that the system will remain in the fight against COVID-19. It will continue its scheduled operation until the threat has completely passed, and different communities will continue to mobilize different forms of direct communication, including door-to-door and mobile methods, to increase public awareness on threats and transmission of the virus. All aim the same target – communities’ full engagement and support that are key to any victory.
The threat remains but Vietnam seems to have hit upon an important understanding that the communities must be committed to the fight. In this war there is hope for a victory in a near future.
Dr. Toan Dang has worked to empower local communities in Vietnam to better enable them to participate in policy-making processes, an area that he sees as a gap between communities and government that must be bridged to sustain development. He believes that empowering communities is a better way to bridge the gap. In so doing, local developmental problems, such as poverty, gender-based discrimination in development, and denied rights in development are better addressed. Dr. Toan Dang completed his PhD in the Rights-Based Development in Western Sydney University in Australia, while before that he had earned his master's study in social planning and development in the University of Queensland.