United front against Covid-19
Vietnam recorded its first novel coronavirus cases on January 23: a father and son from China’s Wuhan City, the first epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This was followed by two more outbreaks, but even as the novel coronavirus became a pandemic, spreading to more than 200 countries and territories, infecting more than 78 million people and claiming more than 1.7 million lives, Vietnam took decisive, unprecedented prevention and containment measures. These were backed by the community at large, responding with the required discipline as well as compassion for those most affected by the restrictions.
The country stopped issuing entry visas to foreigners except in exceptional cases. International flights were suspended in late March. Over 22 million students experienced their longest Lunar New Year break ever at 3.5 months. A nationwide social distancing campaign lasted nearly a month, starting in April. People were asked to stay home and non-essential businesses were shut down. Masks became mandatory as did temperature checks. Mass testing, centralized quarantine and repatriation flights became the new normal.
Perseverance as severe drought parches Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s agriculture and aquaculture hub, experienced severe drought and salt intrusion of historic proportions for nearly six months. The last dry season from late November to May, along with a rainy season that came later and shorter than usual, resulted in rainfall 8 percent lower than normal, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The provinces of Ben Tre, Ca Mau, Kien Giang, Long An, Soc Trang and Tien Giang declared emergencies as they recorded salinity levels surpassing 2016 records when the region suffered the worst drought of the century. By mid-March, seawater had intruded 50-110 kilometers into major rivers, all branches of the Mekong, two to eight kilometers more than in 2016.
Around 41,900 hectares of rice and 6,650 hectares of fruit orchards were damaged, while 96,000 families struggled to get water for their daily needs.
But the delta's residents have initiated actions to cope with the droughts and salinity, installing tanks and building artificial lakes to store water for future dry seasons.
Ben Tre Province has approved construction of the Lac Dia Lake with a capacity of 1.3 million cubic meters, the delta's largest freshwater reservoir. Construction is expected to begin next year and would take five years to complete.
The 37th ASEAN Summit – an online triumph
The 37th ASEAN Summit, hosted in November by Vietnam as the ASEAN Chair, was the first to be hosted online owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides the 10 member states, the event was also attended by Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the U.N. and the U.S.
The summit and related meetings, held on November 12-15, discussed building the ASEAN community and its partnerships, ensuring Covid-19 prevention and control, and regional and international issues of shared concern, including issues on the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
Vietnam earned high praise from world leaders for its initiatives to strengthen ASEAN cooperation through the Covid-19 response fund and regional reserve warehouse for public health emergencies. At the summits and related meetings it hosted, Vietnam also suggested further promotion of marine cooperation, peace and stability in addressing challenges posed by Covid-19, among other messages.
At the summit’s closing ceremony, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc handed over the bloc’s chairpersonship hammer to Brunei Ambassador Pengiran Haji Sahari bin Pengiran Haji Salleh.
Together in grief as disasters devastate central Vietnam
A family travels by makeshift raft in Le Thuy District, Quang Binh Province, October 20, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.
From October to November, the central Vietnam region, particularly the provinces of Thua Thien-Hue, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, were hit by a series of storms and tropical depressions, including storms Linfa, Nangka, Saudel, Molave and Vamco.
The region was deluged, with some areas seeing as much as 2,000 mm of rainfall in just a few days. Damage due to floods and landslides triggered by the storms and depressions during the first half of October were "the worst in five years," said Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung.
The floods and landslides killed at least 192 and caused property losses of around VND30 trillion ($1.3 billion). More than 1,500 houses were destroyed and 240,000 others were damaged. The daily lives of around 5.5. million people were severely disrupted.
Amidst the heart-rending tragedies, there were heartwarming instances of people going out of their way to help those in distress. The central government has provided around VND770 billion to the region as emergency relief. Many international organizations and countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Australia also provided aid to help residents resume normal lives.
HCMC makes smart move with Thu Duc City
In an unprecedented move, Vietnam’s parliament in December greenlighted the establishment of a city within a city: the Thu Duc City in HCMC.
Starting next year, the new city will be formed by merging three eastern districts – 2, 9 and Thu Duc – thanks to their important position in the Southern Key Economic Zones (SKEZ). It will spread across 211 square kilometers, house more than a million people and contribute to 30 percent of HCMC’s annual economic growth and 7 percent of the nation’s.
The three districts’ strong development in banking, finance, industry, commerce, services and tourism, coupled with rapid urbanization and increasing population density, "has prompted the demand for the reorganization, through their merger into one administrative unit," said the government's solution for establishing the city.
Thu Duc City takes forward HCMC’s ambition to become a smart city in the near future.
Human trials begin of Vietnamese Covid-19 vaccine
Nanocovax, a Vietnamese Covid-19 vaccine developed by the Nanogen Pharmaceutical Biotechnology JSC in HCMC, began human trials in December, making Vietnam one of a few countries whose Covid-19 vaccines have managed to enter the clinical trial phase.
The trials’ first phase would enlist 60 volunteers, with 600 joining the second phase and up to 30,000 joining the third phase.
With good results, all three phases of clinical trials may be completed by February 2022.
Vietnam still has three other Covid-19 vaccines in development, with one expected to enter human trials in March next year if approved by authorities.
Rare positive as GDP plunges to 10-year low
Vietnam’s GDP growth in the first nine months hit 2.12 percent, the lowest since 2011, as the Covid-19 pandemic stalled trade and demand dwindled with people cutting down on spending due to lowered incomes, plunging most sectors into grave crisis.
Tourism was among the hardest hit with revenues in the first 11 months plunging nearly 59 percent year-on-year to VND16.6 trillion ($714 million), while textile and garment, the third largest export category, is set to see exports value falling for the first time in 25 years.
However, observers say maintaining positive growth this year should be considered a success as the pandemic has caused most economies in Southeast Asia and many the world over to contract.
An HSBC report has forecast a growth of 8.1 percent for Vietnam in 2021, while the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) peg it at 6 percent and 6.5 percent respectively, indicating a strong recovery if the Covid-19 situation remains under control.
New trade pacts set to boost post-pandemic recovery
Vietnam achieved three major milestones in free trade agreements negotiations and signings in 2020. These pacts are expected to open up opportunities for domestic firms to reach further into key markets in upcoming years.
The EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) came into effect in August after eight years of negotiations. The trade pact will cut or eliminate 99 percent of tariffs on goods traded between the two sides.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade pact with 15 members including Australia, China, Japan, and Vietnam, was inked in November and is set to be ratified within two years.
Vietnam and the U.K. in December concluded negotiations on a bilateral trade pact, the Vietnam - U.K. Free Trade Agreement (UKVFTA), which will maintain their existing relationship in the EVFTA.
Companies shut down en masse, but
Nearly 93,500 companies suspended businesses or dissolved in the first 11 months, up nearly 16 percent year-on-year, as most industries suffered Covid-19 impacts. The sectors with the highest number of dissolved companies were retail, car and motorbike maintenance, and manufacturing and processing.
As companies scaled down their business to survive, the number of workers affected by the pandemic hit 31.8 million in the first nine months, with 14 percent of them laid off and the rest seeing their work hours and income reduced.
Over 983,000 people filed for unemployment benefits in the first 10 months, up nearly 33 percent year-on-year, and the figure is set to hit 1.2 million for the whole year.
However, there were hopeful signs, too. The number of new companies in November rose 7.3 percent from October to nearly 13,100. On average each of them registered a charter capital of VND21.8 billion, up 60 percent. These new companies registered to hire a total of 119,700 workers, up 65 percent from October.
Vietnamese companies also remain more positive about growth and international trade than their global counterparts. The latest HSBC Navigator report, which polled over 10,000 companies in 39 countries and territories, including 200 in Vietnam, found 55 percent of them optimistic about growth, well above the global average of 29 percent.
Stock market tumbles, recovers
Vietnam’s benchmark VN-Index went through a chaotic year due to pandemic impacts, hitting 659.21 points on March 24, its lowest since December 2016, after the country saw a surge in the number of new Covid-19 cases in the third week of the month.
But nationwide social distancing measures imposed in April helped VN-Index recover as stocks gained attraction as an investment option. Despite another economic plunge at the end of July owing to the second Covid-19 outbreak, the index repeatedly climbed to new peaks starting from the end of November.
The stock market plunge also attracted a flux of new investors as banks lowered their deposit rates to improve credit growth. In the first 11 months, nearly 329,500 new domestic accounts were opened, up 75 percent year-on-year. The total number of stock accounts has thus risen to 2.7 million as of November, according to the Vietnam Securities Depository (VSD).
Phan Anh, Dat Nguyen