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Vietnam’s Covid-Free Bubble has Burst

Covid has exploded in Vietnam and the nation is facing a dire vaccine shortage. Have wealthier countries taken more than their fair share?

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
June 29, 2021

Until two months ago, being stuck in Vietnam due to the pandemic felt incredibly lucky. At the end of April, Vietnam had recorded a total of just 2,928 Covid cases since the pandemic began.

For much of the past year, life here has felt eerily normal. I’ve been able to eat at restaurants most of the time, and play gigs with my band in crowded bars. I’ve been able to hop on domestic flights and travel freely within the country.

At an outdoor music festival in January, a Spanish friend said to me, “It’s like we won the geographic lottery.”

I’ve been living in what, until last month, was one of the world’s safest countries as far as Covid is concerned. Everything changed in early May.

The pandemic is now exploding here at an alarming rate. Vietnam has reported more new Covid cases in the last seven days than in the entire first year of the pandemic, and the country is facing a dire vaccine shortage.

Unvaccinated Nurses

I came down with a fever and sore throat four weeks ago. I went to a private clinic in my neighborhood for a Covid test. Before I left home, I packed a bag with medicines, a toothbrush, my laptop, and several changes of clothes. Had I tested positive, I would likely not have been allowed to return to my apartment to get my things. Quarantining at home is not allowed here. I would have been sent straight to a government-run medical facility.

A Covid testing site in my neighborhood.

My test came back negative, but I went home feeling unnerved. A nurse, whose job was to stand in a sweltering tent all day and check people in for their Covid tests, told me that neither he nor any of his colleagues had yet been vaccinated.

As of last week, a little more than two percent of Vietnam’s population had received a single dose of either the AstraZenica or Sputnik V vaccine, according to the Our World in Data website. Both vaccines require two shots for full efficacy. The website reported one week ago that fewer than 122,000 people, in this nation of more than 98 million, had received both doses.

Drastic Measures

The number of new daily cases here is still well below what many other countries have experienced at their peak. So why the urgency?

Vietnam’s health care infrastructure is not equipped to handle an outbreak on the scale of what, for example, the United States has seen. Vietnam is seeing nearly 50 times the number of new cases here now compared to two months ago. Several hospitals have locked down temporarily after staff became infected, according to the English language news website, VNExpress. If this exponential rise continues at its current rate, it could be disastrous.

A street in downtown Saigon is cordoned off as a Covid epicenter. (Photo: James T. Clark / NomadicNotes.com)

Fearful that Covid wards could become overwhelmed, authorities have taken steps to tamp down the virus which people in some countries might consider draconian.

Tens of thousands of people have been sent to quarantine camps, with police stationed outside to make sure nobody comes or goes. Many people in quarantine have not actually tested positive for Covid. They have simply been in contact with others who have.

VNExpress reported last week that one hospital’s walls were fortified with barbed wire after a Covid patient scaled a wall in the hospital yard and “escaped” to buy food at a convenience store.

High-rise apartment buildings where a resident has tested positive have been cordoned off, with no one allowed in or out for several days. In neighborhoods with large-scale outbreaks, entire street blocks have been sealed – surrounded by police and barbed-wire barricades.

Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced last weekend that all taxi and bus services are suspended until further notice. Motorbike taxis are still operating, but a shortage of drivers is making it hard to get around for people who do not own a vehicle.

Expats who are trying to leave the country have posted messages in Facebook groups asking for advice on how to get to the airport when taxis are not running. Commercial flights into Vietnam have been cancelled, but a few planes are being allowed to fly in empty to take people out. Last week, the US embassy and Vietnam Airlines set up an emergency expatriation flight to Washington, DC, for American citizens who wanted to leave.

If you own a smartphone here, you are required to install a government app which tracks your movements, so that they can find you if you’ve been in contact with someone else who tests positive. You must use the app to fill out a health declaration each time you call Grab Bike, a motorbike taxi service similar to Uber and Lyft. You must also fill out a health declaration before you can buy fever-reducing or cold-symptom medications.

After more than a year, Saigon is back in total lockdown. Gatherings of more than three people are prohibited outside of workplaces. Restaurants can still offer takeaway and delivery but many have closed completely.

Authorities have raised the maximum fine for going maskless in public to three million Vietnamese dong – around 130 US dollars. For many people in this country, that equals two weeks’ wages.

Moving from city to city or province to province is difficult right now. Police have set up checkpoints in many areas and are monitoring the temperatures of all motorists.

Local media here are reporting that the government has been scrambling for weeks to try to bring more vaccines into the country. Russia, China, and Japan have sent vaccines to Vietnam. Vietnam has also been trying to develop its own vaccine.

In May, according to VNExpress, Vietnamese officials tried to negotiate with Pfizer to purchase vaccines at a reduced price. Pfizer refused to budge.

“Vaccine Diplomacy” or First-World Greed?

As a US citizen, I am disappointed by America’s slow response to the vaccine shortage in less affluent nations.

CNN reported on May 1 that the United States has secured one billion Covid vaccines for its own population of 331 million. As you do the math on that, keep in mind, that population number includes infants, as well as millions of adults who refuse to be vaccinated.

Three days later, on May 4, President Biden announced the United States would be “an arsenal for fighting Covid-19” globally.

Three weeks ago, on the eve of the G7 summit, Biden said he would “supercharge” the global battle against the coronavirus, pledging to donate 500 million vaccine doses to countries facing shortages.

“We’re doing this to save lives,” the president said. “America will be the arsenal of vaccines in our fight against COVID-19, just as America was the arsenal of democracy during World War Two.”

That’s great, Mr. President, but with due respect, your self-congratulation rings hollow from where I’m living.

Biden announced yesterday that next week, the US will ship 2 million vaccines to Peru and 2.5 million to Pakistan. This is an encouraging beginning, but it does not change the fact that the United States has also thrown away tens of thousands of unwanted vaccines in the last six months.

Forbes reported on June 9 that the United States has used more Covid shots than the 173 least vaccinated countries combined.

I’m getting on Biden’s case here because I’m a US citizen, but the US is by far the only country guilty of vaccine hogging. Many of the world’s wealthy nations have snatched up more than their fair share of Covid vaccines, as this chart from Our World in Data shows:

(You can see how your own country fares by clicking the “Add country” button.)

I do understand that a national leader’s number one priority is to take care of his or her own citizens, but for nations that have grabbed an inequitable share of the world’s vaccines to now pat themselves on the back for their belated “generosity” to poorer countries that have not been able to obtain vaccines strikes me as tone-deaf.

Vaccine Lotteries and Herd Immunity? Let’s Not Be Naïve.

Then, there are the so-called “vaccine lotteries.” Some US states are offering millions of dollars in prize money to a few lucky people who win lucky drawings for the vaccinated.

Friends in the US have tried to explain to me this is a good idea. If more vaccine-hesitant Americans get their shots, they argue, the US will reach herd immunity faster.

But herd immunity isn’t that simple.

Herd immunity on a national or regional level might have worked in 1821, but not in 2021. It can only happen on a global level.

Why? Because viruses mutate. They morph into new strains, whose microbiological purpose is to keep spreading and infecting. We’ve already seen this with new, more contagious Covid variants.

In the 21st century, we can fling ourselves to the other planet in less than 24 hours. If we allow the coronavirus to keep spreading unchecked in some parts of the world, it’s inevitable that new, vaccine-resistant strains will emerge, and make their way into countries that think they are immune. When this happens, even if you’ve been vaccinated, you cannot assume you will be safe.

If governments really want to protect their citizens from a long-lasting Covid threat, there are far more effective things they could do than investing in such economic folly as a vaccine lottery.

It is difficult to describe the sinking feeling I experienced when Ohio became the first of many states to announce a vaccine lottery, and Vietnamese friends asked me to explain the logic. Ohio’s five-million dollars in prize money, doled out to five lucky winners (who could have already been millionaires before the prize drawing), could have paid for 250,000 Pfizer doses if we assume a price-tag of 20 dollars per dose.

The much cheaper AstraZenica vaccine, at four dollars a shot, is the most prominent vaccine in Vietnam right now. California’s 116.5 million dollars in vaccine lottery prizes could pay for more than 29 million AstraZenica shots.

And yeah, I understand that many American taxpayers do not want their state tax dollars to go toward helping people in other countries – nevertheless, the argument that these lotteries are building herd immunity is naive. Bribing a few extra Americans into getting vaccinated is not how we will end this pandemic. If states have extra cash for their own citizens, that money would be far better spent in a more equitable distribution to those who have suffered financial losses under Covid. Those millions of bucks could cover a lot of hospital bills.

A Rapidly Changing Story

I started writing this article last week. Over the weekend, there have been new developments, good and bad, in Vietnam:

Another quarantined street block in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: Kris Wilkinson)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s international commerce hub and most populated city, has become the national Covid epicenter. Earlier this year, we were going months at a time with zero new cases. Last Friday, the city recorded 667 new cases in a single day.

More and more street blocks have been sealed off, and major wholesale markets have been shuttered after people who work at them have tested positive.

Unable to mass-vaccinate, the government announced over the weekend that it will mass-test instead. Authorities in Saigon hope to perform more than five million Covid tests in the next two weeks among the city’s estimated 13 million residents.

Health authorities announced over the weekend that people who have been in close contact with confirmed Covid cases, but who have not tested positive themselves, will now be allowed to quarantine at home rather than in government-run camps if their houses meet certain criteria. This is because with more than 40,000 people currently in quarantine, the camps are nearly full.

Late last week, the Ho Chi Minh City government also changed its rules concerning the taxi ban. A fleet of 400 taxis has gone back into service in Saigon – for the sole purpose of transporting people to and from hospitals and medical centers.

VNExpress reported late last night that international flights into Vietnam “may resume later this year.”

Japan has just announced it will send another million vaccines to Vietnam – even though Japan has only vaccinated less than 15 percent of its own population, according to Reuters.

The Vietnamese government has announced it hopes to vaccinate 70 percent of the population by the end of this year. Previous estimates were that widespread vaccine availability would not happen before the first quarter of 2022. A national fund-raising campaign will help pay for these vaccines. Some private companies have also managed to import vaccines for their employees.

More than a million people here have received their first vaccine dose within the last ten days, according to Our World in Data. As of today, roughly 3.39 million people in Vietnam have now received one dose. The number of fully vaccinated people is still very low, however, at roughly 157,000 in this nation of 98 million.

Over the past seven days, I have sensed a new optimism here compared to a week ago. We are starting to see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. That tunnel, however, still seems pretty damn long.


This is a complex issue. I’ve already had some spirited discussions with friends in the United States about my opinions. If you disagree with what I’ve written here, I’m happy to listen to your perspectives. You can type your comment below or email me at dave@globejotting.com. (To prevent spammers, I must manually approve each comment before it appears online, but opposing viewpoints are welcome.)

Published on Tuesday, June 29, 2021

One Response to “Vietnam’s Covid-Free Bubble has Burst”

  1. July 23, 2021 at 6:05 AM

    Oh, Dave, I’m so sorry to see the situation has worsened so terribly in Vietnam. The light at the end of our own tunnel here in the U.S. is rapidly dimming as the Delta variant spreads rapidly and so many idiots refuse to get vaccinated. It’s beyond belief…but then, so is much of what has happened here over the last four years. My heart especially aches for my friends who work in tourism. I know this will hit them hard. Sending hugs and good wishes that things will continue to improve over there!

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