Conditional easing of restrictions key as Vietnam 'lives with Covid-19'

By Viet Tuan   September 14, 2021 | 05:15 am PT
Conditional easing of restrictions key as Vietnam 'lives with Covid-19'
Deliverymen stop at a Covid-19 checkpoint in Ho Chi Minh City's Phu Nhuan District, August 20, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
With Vietnam shifting its focus to adapting to and living with the Covid-19 pandemic, experts say proper risk classification and conditional easing of restrictions will assume crucial importance.

They agree with the government's move to reopen and revive the economy after months of stringent restrictions, but stress that vigilance and proper control measures are needed for the move to succeed.

National Assembly deputy Hoang Van Cuong said many countries in the world have given up on plans to eliminate the novel coronavirus and switched to living safely with it.

But, for Vietnam to co-exist with the pandemic, necessary measures should be maintained to prevent the disease from spreading, he said.

"We would have to accept that there will still be infections in the community, yet outbreaks will be put under control, and at the same time, we would stay open and develop the economy.

"Of course we must have a roadmap for reopening, with measures to control outbreaks. We cannot try to return to normal at all costs," he said.

Localities need to avoid "two extreme situations" when reopening: wait until there is no more Covid-19 community case to make the move, or rushing to reopen and compromising safety.

The shift in approach has been stressed by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh more than once.

At a meeting with medical experts early this month, Chinh said: "We cannot stay in isolation and lockdown forever because the difficulty it places on the society and economy is huge."

He said vaccines and drugs are a "long-term strategy and decisive tools" and that "we have to know that this war is still a long one and we will have to live with the pandemic for a long time."

The PM also said it was impossible to control the pandemic completely now, "and we must adapt and have suitable ways to respond to the situation."

Legislator Cuong said the first condition for reopening was the ability to put community outbreaks under control and ensure that the number of new cases will be within the treatment capacity of the healthcare sector.

"Safety in the current context means that a locality must proactively take measures to prevent an outbreak from spreading and be able to handle infections as soon as they occur to protect the healthcare system from overload and minimize the number of deaths," he said.

Tran Dac Phu, senior advisor at the Public Health Emergency Operations Center under the Health Ministry, said after a period of social distancing, reopening for economic development and social security becomes a necessity.

However, disease control must remain a top priority, he added.

"Each locality should rely on the actual situation in the area to develop an appropriate plan for loosening restrictions... gradually narrowing down areas with very high risks and expanding areas with lower risks," he said.

Citing Ho Chi Minh City, the epicenter of Vietnam’s latest Covid-19 wave, as an example, he said the city has gone through different levels of social distancing rule since late May. From July 9 until recently, it has been put under Directive 16, the strictest measures that do not allow people to go out except for "essential purposes."

At present, the city’s districts 7, Can Gio and Cu Chi have become stable so they could start reopening step by step while other districts have to be more cautious.

Meanwhile, Hanoi has gone through more than 50 days of social distancing and the entire city has basically put its outbreak under control, so it can start easing social distancing requirements after Sept. 15.

Dr. Nguyen Duc Thai with the University of California San Francisco said the pandemic situation in Vietnam was still complicated and remained heterogeneous in places. Therefore, based on testing, each locality needs to clearly separate areas into very high-risk, high-risk, and low-risk classifications for better management.

Social distancing and regular tests must be continued in very high-risk areas. For other areas, occasional mass testing can be done and essential services should be gradually reopened based on their pandemic situations.

He added that aside from testing, Vietnam needed to invest in drugs for treatment as well as medical oxygen to save as many patients as possible.

The experts were on the same page about ensuring vaccine coverage, saying that it was crucial to boost the campaign nationwide.

Phu said high vaccination rate was an important factor in Vietnam returning to normalcy because it would prevent the condition of Covid-19 patients from worsening and causing death. This would, in turn, ease the burden on the healthcare system.

"We have to achieve the target of vaccinating more than 70 percent of the population so that if the outbreak returns, the health sector will be saved from getting overloaded.

"Hanoi and HCMC have almost administered almost all adults with the first vaccine dose and have started on the second. Many other localities are still far behind in their low vaccination rates."

"In the final months of this year, vaccination speed should pick up as more doses come to Vietnam from different sources," said Cuong.

Dr. Thai said Vietnam should give vaccine priority to people above 65 and those with underlying health conditions and at the same time, quickly complete procedures for recognizing fully vaccinated ones so that they can return to work and join the frontline forces.

For a roadmap to reopening the economy, Cuong suggested prioritizing activities with little contact among people and in large opening spaces, such as outdoor agricultural production and outdoor construction work.

For indoor production activities, he proposed priority for factories that can completely separate each department from the other and ensure that cross-infection occurs in case someone tests positive.

"In case there is an infection in one department, only that would be shut down, instead of the whole factory," he said.

Restaurants and eateries should be opened soon because they are essential, yet safety must be guaranteed once they are allowed to reopen, said Cuong.

He also said that while indoor restaurants can be restricted to serving takeaways, those with ample outdoor space can be allowed to open with on site service.

High-risk services such as discos, bars, karaoke, massage parlors, which are offered all in closed space "cannot be opened any time soon," he said.

Vietnam has recorded 630,662 Covid-19 community cases in 62 out of its 63 cities and localities. Of these, 15,901 have died.

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