The impacts of COVID-19 on Vietnam and ways to move forward

Author: Minh Cuong Duong, UNSW

The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Vietnam are much lower than in most countries worldwide due to early and aggressive anti-pandemic response. But this does not mean that the impact of the pandemic on Vietnam is less severe.

Residents celebrate after authorities lifted the quarantine in Dong Cuu village, the last Vietnamese quarantined village affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside Hanoi, Vietnam 14 May, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

The crisis has adversely affected all sectors in Vietnam and COVID-19 related losses may not be fully reflected in the statistics. The economic impact is clearly seen, especially in the airline and tourism industries, which are among those most affected everywhere. Vietnam Airlines — the only national airline — has reported that the damage from closing routes to be about US$1.3 billion. Vietnam’s tourism industry is facing an expected loss of between US$5.9 and US$7 billion.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed Directive No 15 and Directive No 16 in late March which introducing measures that included nationwide social distancing. These measures have been effective but several business sectors, including restaurants, shops, cinemas and entertainment venues, have been affected by the collapse in demand. Even as social distancing measures are relaxed, non-essential businesses remain closed. Vietnam’s foreign entry restrictions are still in effect to prevent domestic outbreaks. It is estimated that up to 10.3 million workers could lose their jobs or have their incomes decreased. Vietnam’s GDP growth could fall from 7 per cent in 2019 to 4 per cent in 2020.

The education and training sector has been affected by nationwide school closures. Schools will reopen in phases. Education is being delivered online despite teachers and students finding it difficult because of a lack of training and infrastructure. School closures remain a controversial issue, with some suggesting that the public health benefits of this action are disproportionate to the social and economic costs imposed on children and their families. However, since Vietnam has made protecting health and lives a priority, the government’s decision is understandable and explains its success in containing COVID-19. The government has put in place guidelines to ensure the safety of students when they return to school.

Despite the overcrowded healthcare system, the government’s mass mobilisation of its resources has contributed to Vietnam’s success. Nevertheless, Bach Mai Hospital — one of the largest tertiary hospitals in Vietnam that provides medical services to more than 1.75 million patients annually — shut down for 14 days due to a COVID-19 outbreak. A long interruption to hospital services is among the greatest impacts of COVID-19 on the local healthcare system.

There have been social and cultural impacts of nationwide social distancing policies. These include the shutdown of theatres, sports centres and other nonessential services and the suspension of religious rituals, crowded festivals and outside gatherings.

As the world’s third-largest rice exporter, Vietnam has monitored its rice exports closely to ensure food security during the crisis. Vietnam has approved a US$2.66 billion support package for those affected by the virus and delayed collecting tax and land-use fee payments to support businesses. Vietnam is also encouraging localities, businesses and trade promotion organisations to develop online marketing measures and e-commerce activities, and to boost the use of IT in their operations.

Given the estimated 63.6 million internet users in Vietnam and the 20 per cent increase in online shopping as of March 2020, e-commerce businesses are seeing surging demand that may encourage them to develop better services after the pandemic is over.

Although new in Vietnam, the temporary shift to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis may help to solve disparities in access to learning across the country. E-learning methods have been developed despite infrastructure challenges, especially in rural areas. To maximise the flexibility of online learning, it will be necessary to integrate this new model with traditional learning. Students will need other kinds of ongoing support, such as training and improved internet penetration.

IT-based solutions have expanded into the healthcare sector with the development of high-tech apps to help prevent and control COVID-19 and implement telemedicine. This approach reduces treatment-related costs and overcrowding at tertiary hospitals and can be applied to manage other diseases. The early genetic re-creation of the novel coronavirus, the made-in-Vietnam COVID-19 test kits approved by the World Health Organization and the donation of medical supplies to several countries like the United States and Cambodia, have demonstrated Vietnam’s capabilities in healthcare research, development and manufacturing. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided new opportunities for businesses developing test kits and personal protective equipment in Vietnam. The government’s management of the frontline team, including doctors, orderlies, military personnel and volunteers, has been successful in catching imported cases and maintaining Vietnam’s low community transmission in the second phase of the pandemic.

Community awareness of public health issues and health promotion have been greatly improved by COVID-19 information being distributed daily through various media and telecommunication channels. This approach should continue to maintain the community’s knowledge about the prevention and control of respiratory illnesses and other prevalent diseases in Vietnam.

Although Vietnam is on the right track in fighting COVID-19, the management response has had adverse effects in the community, just as in other countries. But an international survey showed that 62 per cent of participants think Vietnam is doing the ‘right amount’ — the highest percentage among the 45 countries surveyed.

The pandemic will be controlled, but there are likely to be other health crises in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for all systems in Vietnam. The importance of prompt action, social connectivity and adaptivity in facilitating effective anti-pandemic responses must be acknowledged.

Minh Cuong Duong, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Immunising Asia’, Vol. 12 No. 2.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.