Novel coronavirus lockdown rekindles community spirit in Vietnam

By Pham Chieu   March 6, 2020 | 03:31 am PT
Facing both inconvenience and fear, a Vinh Phuc commune had little resort but to draw closer as Covid-19 caused temporary isolation.

Several hours after northern Vinh Phuc Province lifted its lockdown over Son Loi Commune by removing dozens of checkpoints, it started raining cats and dogs. The shower, lasting for hours, could not stop local residents from rejoicing as their lives returned to normal.

Twenty days earlier, they had commenced tightly controlled lives due to the coronavirus outbreak. The local hustle and bustle returned as worries and fears vanished. With many stores again open, locals hung out to discuss life in the grip of Covid-19.

Nguyen Duy Hai, community leader of Ai Van Village, recalls the mad scramble as the deadly new coronavirus hit his hometown. The first infection in Son Loi Commune, as well as Binh Xuyen District, occurred in Ai Van.

Children hang out on a road in Son Loi Commune on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Young Son Loi cyclists rid themselves of pent up energy with the Covid-19 shut down a thing of the past on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

On the sixth day of Lunar New Year (January 30) Hai discovered via social media the patient to be a young woman named Du sent as part of a team employed by a Japanese company for training in Wuhan, China. The group returned to Vietnam on January 17. 

Du, having watched a football match in the morning, learned she was carrying the virus by evening.

"Everyone freaked out after watching news about the epidemic in Wuhan on TV," Hai recalled, adding many locals knew little of the virus at the time.

The next morning, an urgent meeting was held to inform residents of the situation.

Hai and other village leaders, while trying to calm everyone, confirmed all spring festivals, weddings and funerals would be canceled.

Info posters and banners were quickly printed and distributed with masks and hand sanitizer, placed at the village entrance. "Those entering without masks were advised to take some before proceeding further," Hai said.

Soon, 90 percent of villagers donned masks, while Hai created an online group to share updates on the deadly virus.

People who came in contact with Du were identified and asked to undergo self-quarantine at home and call on neighbors for help when necessary.

Du's mother and sister were the next. On the evening of February 6, northern Vinh Phuc Province had seven cases, in which three patients were coming back from Wuhan.

On February 12, Hai and other Son Loi Commune leaders were summoned to a meeting at the district headquarters.

"No one knew they would isolate Son Loi," he recalled.

In the meeting, Dinh Ngoc Khoa, provincial police chief, said it would be impossible to address if the virus were to spread as it did in Wuhan.

"Khoa proposed we isolate Son Loi Commune, to which we all concurred," Hai said. 

Twelve checkpoints were set up the next morning, heavily restricting personal movement. Many residents opted to remain at home instead of attending annual festivals or even work. Those far from their hometown were called home.

It not being long since the festive holiday, most households still had enough food, in addition to external support. With a solid agriculture background, Son Loi had little to fear regarding food shortages.

"I was lucky the epidemic only hit Son Loi. If it had been a city, I think it would have been hard to control," Hai noted.

Solitary spirit

Nguyen Thanh Tam, secretary of the local Party Committee, relocated to his office during the lockdown, the police chief’s work station serving as his bedroom.

Tam said when the first infection was identified in Ai Van Village, a management board was quickly formed in Son Loi Commune to contain the advancing virus.

Four locals with medical backgrounds served at the 12 local checkpoints, 48 out of 100 volunteers controlling entry and exit.

Local men play chess on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A game of chess offers respite on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Each village employed several teams, subsisting on instant noodles for effeciency, to check and record body temperatures at every household, with even 9th grade students volunteering to serve their communities.

Expectant mothers had to first gain permission to deliver their babies at hospital, some as late as 1 a.m.

During the lockdown, three locals passed away due to cancer.

"Even funerals were simpler," Tam recalled, saying attendees were not allowed to party, and that permission was needed ahead of each cremation ceremony.

Typically, over 20 people attended each cremation ceremony, but during the lockdown, only three were allowed to go.

Medical teams attended funerals to ensure sanitary conditions and that everyone wore masks.

Community members faced certain ridicule, with Tam recalling some netizens calling for a boycott on anyone hailing from northern Vinh Phuc Province for fear they carried the deadly virus.

Stigma spread among many villages across the commune.

"Living amid such strain made us realize the spirit of solidarity," Tam maintained. At checkpoints, volunteers warmed themselves by fires and ate bananas, rice, or sweet potatoes to keep their hunger at bay.

Free of the rat race

For many in Son Loi Commune, the lockdown offered a chance to exit the rat race and focus on more important things.

Standing in her kitchen, under construction at the time, Nguyen Thi Anh from Nhan Nghia said she frequented Hanoi's Xuan Dinh Street market each day to buy food to sell in the village.

Many of the chickens and pigeons she had bought, and failed to shift, served her family well during the lockdown.

When the commune was isolated, Anh's family finished construction themselves with the help of 20 other villagers, Anh said, adding she had been too busy prior to the shutdown to attend to the building process.

Her husband, a painter, has stopped working since the outbreak commenced.

"The epidemic is disturbing, but quarantine is for our own protection and the society," Anh noted.

She planned to return to the Hanoi market after the lockdown, though fearing her customers may have forgotten her after 20 days.

The lockdown did not bother 70-year-old Tran Thi Quy. It was her cornfield that worried her.

"Everything seems to be ok, luckily," she said inspecting his fields following the lockdown lift on March 4.

On the same day, teacher Ta Thi Loan and her colleagues welcomed back around 500 students to their newly sanitized school a week earlier than planned.

Loan, having no summer breaks, had appreciated this unexpected family time.

Ta Thi Loan cleans her school on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Ta Thi Loan cleans the school on March 4, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

"I cooked many dishes for my family during the day since I had so much extra time," she added.

During the lockdown, Loan and other teachers regularly updated the school's management board on the health of all students, with those experiencing worrying symptoms undergoing a medical check.

Food parcels were sent to seniors in Son Loi Commune on March 4 as the shutdown came to an end, a previous checkpoint recommencing life as a vegetable and fruit market.

Life in Son Loi Commune is slowly returning to normalcy with regular announcements reminding locals to remain vigilant regarding the virus.

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