People flee HCMC on economic woes, Covid fears

By Dang Khoa, Long Nguyen, Tran Hoa   July 23, 2021 | 10:16 am GMT+7
Loss of livelihoods and fears of contracting Covid-19 are causing people to leave HCMC for their hometowns as it grapples with its worst outbreak yet.

Last Sunday Dang Van Gin, a worker at a factory in Cu Chi District, stood in a kilometer-long line with thousands of people to pass a checkpoint to enter Dak Nong Province in the Central Highlands.

After he filled in health declaration forms, had his temperature checked and furnished a negative Covid test, he was allowed to pass.

Due to the pandemic, he was earning only VND2 million ($87.19) a month but living costs in Saigon were too expensive, and so he decided to return to his native Dak Lak. He had to pass through seven Covid checkpoints during his 200-kilometer trip from HCMC.

The man is among thousands of people living in Saigon and now trying to escape what has become the nation's Covid epicenter.

Saigon returnees arrive in Da Nang, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong.

Saigon returnees arrive in Da Nang, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong.

The economic crunch caused by the current outbreak and month-long social distancing campaign has made many people, mostly migrant workers, temporarily give up on their urban dreams.

Nguyen Dinh Trong, a worker at a textile firm in Binh Tan District, returned home to neighboring Dong Nai Province after his company was temporarily shut last week.

He said: "The firm gives me VND3 million a month and has told me to stay at home until further notice. How I am supposed to live in Saigon with this money?"

At home in Long Thanh District, for the last two weeks the 28-year-old has been helping his parents with agricultural work to earn some money.

Across the country, some 12.8 million workers have been affected by the pandemic in the second quarter, up 41 percent from the first, the General Statistics Office estimates.

Notably, urban workers seem to have been hit harder than their rural counterparts, with 21.9 percent in cities reporting negative impacts against 14.3 percent in rural areas.

"At least food is more affordable in Dong Nai, but I still have to pay VND1 million for rent in Saigon though I am not there," Trong said.

Besides the bread and butter issues, Covid fears are also causing many people to leave the city, which has had 49,000 cases in the current outbreak.

As of July 23 it has more than 3,000 locked-down areas, but the number of new Covid patients keeps rising despite the stringent lockdowns, making many anxious.

Nguyen Thi Hong Hanh, 24, a hairdresser who lives with some friends in an apartment in District 10, left the city earlier this week for home in the northern Quang Ninh Province, which requires all arrivals to furnish negative test results and still quarantines them for 14 days.

"If I stay in Saigon, my family will be stressed out," she said to explain why she accepted the quarantine.

At first she was worried she could take the virus home, but "the longer I stay the more my family and I are scared."

Buses from central Quang Nam Province travel to HCMC to pick up those who want to return to the province, July 21, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Buses from central Quang Nam Province travel to HCMC to pick up those who want to return to the province, July 21, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.


With interprovincial buses not plying, many people make their own way home.

"I am very happy and grateful that I [can] return to my hometown," Tran Van Hoang, 34, a hawker who has been unemployed for many months, said while waiting at the Cai Chanh checkpoint in Dak Nong Province.

In the last few days it has been packed with people leaving southern localities like HCMC, Binh Duong and others in flocks for Dak Nong, Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum provinces in the Central Highlands.

Dao Kim Nghiep, deputy director of the Dak R'lap District Health Center, said the busiest time is between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m, and more than 1,000 people queue for nearly a kilometer even at midnight.

To help their people return home and ease the pressure on HCMC’s strained healthcare system, several provinces and cities are working with the city to organize free travel.

"I have registered for a flight ticket to Quang Binh Province to see my family, who tell me to come home every day," Le Trong Hung, a driver at a paper company in Tan Binh District, said.

The company paid him an allowance of VND3 million during the lockdown, "but it is not enough for this Covid nightmare," he said.

In the last few days HCMC officials have arranged free buses to the central region and Mekong Delta for people, and one can sign up for them by contacting designated support groups.

Over 600 people were sent to Da Nang on three free flights on Wednesday, most of them factory workers, poor laborers and students, after being tested.

Quang Ngai Province plans to take 400 people back home in the first phase, and Gia Lai has drawn up a list of students and people working in HCMC who wish to return home. It has promised to arrange buses for them soon.

The Ministry of Health requires everyone arriving in other places from HCMC to self-isolate for seven days and monitor their own health for another seven.

Some provinces have gone further, quarantining all visitors but providing them with free food and Covid tests.

But many returnees still feel uneasy and anxious about the possible stigma and discrimination when they return home after the quarantine.

Hanh said: "I delayed my return to Quang Ninh just because I knew my relatives and neighbors will be scared of people from Saigon. I hope they will feel okay after I finish quarantine."

Trong is also scared about what his neighbors will say, and so has hunkered down at home and works in the garden with a mask on all the time.

Others, severely hit by the year-long economic downturn, are worried about their future after giving up their urban dream, especially with the end of the pandemic still nowhere in sight.

Trong, Hanh and Hung have no idea when they can return to Saigon or to work, but only know it is going to take months before their lives can get back to a semblance of normalcy.

Hanh said she would find a temporary job at a local hair salon, and Trong will remain in Dong Nai until the company reopens.

Hung has no idea how to earn money to support his family.

"At least I am safe and my family can stop worrying now," he said.

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