Soldiers on the frontlines of battle against Covid-19

By Thanh Lam, Hoang Phuong   March 24, 2020 | 07:58 pm PT
Many soldiers have become cooks, helpers and delivery men for people in quarantine zones in Hanoi.

At 4 a.m on March 19 captain Le Phi Hung tried to keep awake and focus on the work he was doing with colleagues. A group of them prepared rooms, snacks and water, others received passengers and their health declaration forms.

People got down from buses, exhausted after hours of flying, with a lot of luggage. Hung welcomed them, checked if everyone was accounted for and helped them carry their luggage to their room.

An officer takes a rest while waiting for people to get off the bus on March 18. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A military officer and quarantine worker rests while waiting for people to get off the bus at the quarantine facility in Hanoi's Hoang Mai District on March 18, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

It was a busy night at a student dormitory in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai District, with Hung and the other soldiers receiving 447 quarantined people over seven hours from 10 p.m.

There are many people like Hung at the quarantine facility. Dressed in layers of protective clothes, they only show their eyes while helping the arriving people with the medical process, procuring food for them and delivering stuff sent by their family members.

The 14 days of quarantine will also see Hung and his colleagues stay in the facility "eating together, staying together, taking care of others together, quarantining together."

They have no idea when they will contract the virus and become F1, or people having close contact with infected patients.

The previous day Hung was having lunch just before noon when he was summoned for an urgent mission.

Fifteen minutes later 30 officers from Hoang Mai District’s Military Steering Board officially joined the team working inside the quarantine facility. 

They had had no time to prepare.

Hung was hesitant about calling his wife because "she would cry no matter what happens."

During his 10 years in the army Hung has sometimes been away from his wife for months to help with relief work during natural disasters.

"I will protect myself carefully, do not worry," he comforted his wife, who was crying on the phone.

The 30 officers arrived at the dormitory while many students were still there. They had six hours to help the students move out, pack their stuff, disinfect 19 floors in two buildings and prepare food and blankets for 500 rooms.

At 10 p.m. the first bus arrived with 14 foreign passengers. Some of them were reluctant to get off the bus.

"My friends stay in a hotel, why do I need to be here?" a person who had been traveling in a group of eight asked.

A Russian tourist changed her mind after seeing the quarantine zone, saying she wanted to return to Russia. Hung had to convince her.

Soon after that three buses arrived with Vietnamese. 

"Please change my room."

"Where is my luggage?"

"Give me a different blanket."

Hung cannot remember how many questions he answered that night and how many telephone numbers he noted down.

Each floor with 28 rooms is managed by one soldier and four militias. Not knowing when the next bus will arrive, they could not sleep at night since they had to be ready.

Over the next three days Hung and his colleagues did not have proper sleep.

Hung said he tried to avoid going to the restroom since "Taking off the protective clothes means I have to be disinfected again. Long process. So we just keep wearing them."

The masks and glasses have left marks on their faces.

The soldiers eat the same food as the quarantined people. Hung joked that he had to eat three portions to become full.

On March 20 several buses arrived from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., leaving Hung and his colleagues no time for lunch.

It took them a few days to realize that the rubber smell emanating from their food was because of the gloves they wear all day.

Soldiers deliver meals for people in Son Tay Military School. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Soldiers deliver food to people quarantined at the Son Tay Military School in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Sixty kilometers to the west, in the kitchen at the Son Tay Military School in Hanoi, seven men were making food for 776 people quarantined there. They are members of the 610 Communication Battalion stationed in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai District, who were sent to the school on February 26, when Vietnam first started quarantining people coming from South Korea.

Ensign Trinh The Anh, 23, is dexterous at making small packs of fish sauce with rubber bands. Now he finishes each within 10 seconds, but earlier the man from Thai Binh Province used to spill the sauce, causing a stink in the kitchen.

On his first day at the quarantine, Anh went up or down 17,323 steps to clean the rooms before people arrived. He then became part of a team of 40 which was to work in a special area, or the quarantine zone.

The facility has been divided into three areas: an outer one with security guards, a middle area where the 40-member logistics team works and the inner area, the quarantine zone, with 90 rooms managed by another 40-member team.

These 40 people comprising soldiers, medical staff, drivers, disinfection workers are not allowed to leave the facility.

"Is the meal okay? Are you hungry? Do you need anything?" soldiers ask the quarantined people these questions every day.

Anh carries meals to each room three times a day. After people finish eating, he and his colleagues collect the plastic boxes and burn them.

They throw all the boxes into a hole, burn them and scatter disinfectant powder. Only after this task is complete can they go and eat.

At 10 p.m. every day they go to each room and tell people to turn off their lights and sleep in time. They take turns to remain awake and are ready for any situation.

"Soldier, please help me turn on my fan."

"Soldier, my roommate has a fever."

"Soldier, can I borrow a kettle to boil some water for my kids?"

Sleeping has been a luxury for Anh.

He concealed his mission from his mother by never making video calls. She suspected and kept calling her son, and when the truth finally came out, she sighed and told him to always wear a mask.

Trinh The Anh has some soup before collecting boxes of people and burn them. Photo by VnExpress/P.X.

Trinh The Anh has some soup before collecting empty food boxes from quarantined people and burning them. Photo by VnExpress/P.X.

On March 12 the last of those who arrived from South Korea left the quarantine facility, and Anh and his colleagues could walk out of the place. But the novel coronavirus was hitting Europe, causing thousands of Vietnamese to return home.

On March 15 around 1,000 Vietnamese landed at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, and half were sent to quarantine at the Son Tay Military School. Anh and the others started to work around the clock one more time. He moved to the middle area with logistic works. 

Buses bring people to the camp in the middle of the night, giving the personnel no opportunity to sleep. Anh’s team stays up to make food for hungry passengers. Sometimes, they take a nap and wake up when they hear the sound of vehicles. 

They are up and ready at 4 a.m. to make breakfast for the hundreds of people in the camp.

"Tired but happy since I see people leaving epidemic hotspots and returning home safely," Anh said.

They also work as delivery men, helping families send tea, fruits and snacks to their beloved ones in quarantine.

Anh misses his mother. Just the night before going to the camp, he had called her and told her to cook his favorite dishes since he would be coming home. An hour later, after a phone call from his superior, he called her one more time and said his trip had been postponed.

Vietnam said from March 21 all international passengers would be quarantined. As of Monday there are more than 16,500 people in military camps. 

Soldiers like Hung and Anh are always ready for a new mission to combat the Covid-19.

These days there are only 20 people at the Hoang Mai District Military Steering Board. Women soldiers now have to do evening shifts when their male counterparts are away.

"They are at the forefront, I must get their back," Lieutenant Nguyen Thi Thuong said.

She looks out into the yard, recalling the time when she and her colleagues would play badminton and volleyball there. She misses them but rarely calls knowing they would be busy.

Hung too does not call his wife much. Two days after entering the facility, he made his first call.

"I am afraid she will cry when she hears my voice."

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