Vietnamese divided about extending social distancing campaign

By Long Nguyen   April 11, 2020 | 09:19 pm PT
With the social distancing campaign drawing to an end, public opinion is sharply divided on a possible extension by the authorities.

On Friday afternoon, five days before the campaign comes to an end, streets in Saigon are packed with commuters and people are exercising outdoors.

But others are staying at home unless there is a pressing to leave.

"I feel safe staying at home amid the pandemic, and it is totally okay to extend this social distancing campaign," Do Hoang Lam of District 10, Saigon, says. Several new patients who do not have a clear source of infection pose a great risk to the community and social distancing makes him feel safer, he adds.

But his wife, Nguyen Thanh An, is not convinced. "We have no more than four new patients a day since April 4, meaning the disease in under control."

As a businesswoman, she prefers a return to normalcy. She is counting every day until April 15 to open her spa after two weeks of closure.

"Earning is as important as fighting the epidemic, especially when we have reasons to be optimistic."

This division is playing out around the country ahead of the end of the 15-day social distancing period on April 15.

Hanoians sit on Lan Ong Street on April 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Hanoians sit outside their houses on Lan Ong Street, April 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Since the number of new cases has been rising slowly over the past few days, many believe the Covid-19 pandemic is under control and another period of social distancing is unnecessary.

Of Vietnam’s 258 Covid-19 patients so far, 144 have been discharged from hospitals. Of the 114 active cases, 12 have tested negative twice and 13 have tested negative once. 

Truong Anh Tuyet, a housewife in Hanoi’s Long Bien District, says, "Since there are only a few new cases every day, the infection risk is minor, and millions of people are looking forward to resuming their normal lives." Since April 1 she had not ventured out until Saturday morning.

"I finally went for a walk early in the morning because I was too bored, but a policeman told me to go home. Why are they so serious when more and more people have been treated and discharged?"

On social networks, many people are optimistic.

"Suspending international flights, putting suspected cases in quarantine and isolating hotspots ... we have been doing well," says a commenter on a Facebook group for foreigners in Hanoi with more than 100,000 members. 

"The social distancing period should end because life must go on."

For businesspeople, whose livelihood has taken a hit due to the closure of non-essential services and shops, the earlier the social distancing period ends, the better.

Many of them think authorities should not continue to sacrifice the economy to contain the pandemic, which seems to have eased off during the last few days of the social distancing campaign.

An says: "Many people are losing money because of the social distancing. Can we just let things get back to normal and remind people to be careful for their own sake?" 

Saigon commuters on April 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

A crowded area in Saigon on April 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/HoangHuy.

But others are less sanguine about the pandemic situation and do not want the social distancing campaign to end yet.

Nguyen Huy Nga, former director of the General Department of Preventive Medicine, warns that the decrease in the number of new infections is good news but means little.

Vietnam has reported only nine Covid-19 infection cases over the past five days. On March 22, the country had recorded 19 new cases, marking the highest number in a single day.

"After the 15 days of social distancing are over, if there are new infections, we have to isolate the hotspots, contain the epidemic and maintain social distancing," he points out.

Nguyen Thanh Vi, a white-collar worker in Ho Chi Minh City, still feels threatened by the deadly virus. While there have been inconveniences during the social distancing period, she does not mind them "as long as everyone is safe from the virus."

"If we end this (the social distancing campaign) too soon, I am afraid our efforts would have been in vain."

In fact, the government has predicted more community infections over the next few days.

During the first seven days of the social distancing period, only 22 out of 31 new infections were diagnosed at quarantines, with the rest found in the community.

More worryingly, the sources of infection have not been identified yet for some patients, making it difficult for medical authorities to trace people having close contact with them.

Another reason people are hoping for a longer social distancing period is that even during the campaign many were indifferent with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City seeing crowds of commuters and people exercising outdoors, and things could worsen if the campaign is lifted. 

Lam, who supports the Ministry of Health’s proposal to possibly extend the social distancing campaign, asks: "Many people people have not practiced social distancing in the last 10 days? If we stop (social distancing), more people will drop their guard."

Testing the waters

Tran Dac Phu, senior advisor at the Public Health Emergency Operations Center under the Health Ministry, too said social distancing remains crucial since Vietnam has many potential cases out in the community.

"Once social distancing is practiced well, a hotspot will not have a chance to grow bigger. It is just like a fire: if the fires are small, we totally have the ability to extinguish each of them."

The government has not decided to extend the social distancing campaign or not since the country has entered the third stage of the epidemic with several cases in the community, and the sources of some, yet to be detected, Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Truong Son said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, medical experts warn that many people could be carrying the virus without showing symptoms and transmitting it to others, creating potential transmission chains and posing great danger.

But social distancing could cut those chains even when the sources of infection are in the community, Phu said.

Last Monday Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instructed ministries and local governments to prepare for a second wave of the virus that has hit other countries.

"If the pandemic continues, protecting people’s health will be the most important factor, not economic growth."

The National Steering Committee on Covid-19 Prevention and Control will discuss the possibility of extending the social distancing campaign on Monday before making a recommendation to the prime minister.

Both Lam and his wife have been thinking about what they would do after the social distancing campaign is over. While An wants to go for a haircut, Lam has not decided.

"I do not plan because it does not matter what I will do after this; it is safety that matters, the safety of all of us amid the raging pandemic," he says.

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