Exodus unlikely as Vietnamese-Asian diaspora brace for new Covid-19 outbreaks

By Viet Anh   December 30, 2020 | 11:35 pm PT
Exodus unlikely as Vietnamese-Asian diaspora brace for new Covid-19 outbreaks
A migrant worker has her temperature checked as she queues to talk with the public health authorities for a Covid-19 investigation at a fresh market, in Bangkok, Thailand, December 22, 2020. Photo by Reuters.
With new outbreaks and a Covid-19 variant looming on the horizon, Vietnamese expats in Asia are worried sick, but they are staying put.

Most have no plans to rush back to Vietnam, believing that refraining from traveling is a safer option.

"I am very worried about the new coronavirus outbreak in Thailand. I fear that it will be much more unpredictable," Nguyen Minh Dong, a Vietnamese living in Bangkok, told VnExpress International.

Thailand has been striving to restart and revive its lucrative tourism sector, but the recent discovery of more than 1,300 cases in Samut Sakhon among migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, has placed the nation on high alert.

Thailand confirmed 194 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the majority of which were locally transmitted, the government’s Covid-19 task-force said. Thailand has confirmed a total of 6,884 coronavirus cases and 61 deaths since first detecting the virus in late January.

Adding to Dong’s worry is news about a Covid-19 variant from the U.K. spreading to other countries in Asia.

He is somewhat reassured that the Thai government is taking urgent, rapid measures to control the new Covid-19 surge. All infected cases are in quarantine and provinces recording new outbreaks are being locked down.

In Manila, the Philippines, Phan Nhat Nguyen is resigned to 2021 replicating 2020 with restricted travel, further economic decline, and greater anxiety among the people.

However, "it makes me feel disturbed," said Nguyen, who works in the logistics sector.

Manila, which accounts for 40 percent of the country’s economic output and is home to at least 12 million people, remains the novel coronavirus hotspot in the Philippines, which has the second highest number of infections and deaths in Southeast Asia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte extended partial coronavirus restrictions in the capital until the end of January to prevent the spread of Covid-19 following Christmas and holiday festivities. The Philippines has 472,532 cases and 9,230 deaths from the pandemic, with around a thousand new infections reported daily.

The nation is also responding to the new, more transmissible Covid-19 variant which has been found in Britain, by extending a flight ban from Britain until mid-January 2021.

Nguyen feels that the Philippines government is slow in preventing the virus from spreading and in dealing with the pandemic. He rated the response as "medium-level."

Normal life far from reality

Doan Thi Quynh who has been in Beijing, China, for nine years, said she was very sad to hear about the new virus variant linked to the U.K. It means that the pandemic can last long with an uncertain ending and that a "normal life is far from reality," Quynh said.

"I miss my job as a manager of a tourist company. I have been off since the beginning of the Covid-19," Quynh said.

She recognized that the Chinese government has been applying a consistent policy in containing the pandemic, especially on checking body temperature and travel history at malls and restaurants. Residents also follow rules seriously.

China reported 25 new Covid-19 cases on Dec. 30, up from 24 cases a day earlier, the national health authority said on Thursday.

Many locally transmitted cases came from the northeastern province of Liaoning and the capital city of Beijing. The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China was more than 87,000, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,634.

Describing the pandemic in South Korea as a "complicated development," Vu Thi Nhung, living in Wonju, Gangwon Province, said she had become more distressed on hearing about the new virus strain linked to the U.K. just when she was hopeful for Covid-19 vaccination to become available in the country by February 2021.

Three cases of the new variant have been confirmed in South Korea, health authorities said Monday. South Korea, with 60,740 infections including 900 deaths, has barred flights from Britain until the end of the year.

However, the fact that Singapore confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus variant found in the U.K. on December 23 does not make Ta Quynh Giang, living in Jurong West, feel anxious. The patient was quarantined on arrival and there is no news about new cases in the community.

More importantly, Giang appreciates Singapore's strict rules in managing the pandemic along with a high quality healthcare system. Authorities can check the location of people who are in quarantine by making them wear specific equipment. Violators are fined in cash and/or prison sentences of up to six months. Immigrants' labor card or residence card may be cancelled if they break the law. The total case count Singapore has reached 58,569 with 29 deaths from Covid-19 complications and 15 who tested positive dying of other causes.

"I am not too upset now. We have been in a bad mood for a long time and it is what it is," Giang said.

Living in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, Phan Phuong Thuy said she was "not much troubled" about the new virus strain from the U.K., because she has learned to "pay little attention" to negative news relating to Covid-19.

Also, the low population density in Nagano makes her feel safer than in other big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Local authorities have encouraged people to take safety measures (wear a mask, use hand sanitizer, check body temperature) and avoid crowded places. Nevertheless, the Japanese government is maintaining the "go-to eat" campaign to stimulate consumption for economic development. The "go-to travel" campaign is not being pushed, though.

No plans to return

Giang said she’d wanted to return to Vietnam several months ago when the number of infections rose in Singapore's dormitories for migrant workers.

But she has decided to stay because of the nation’s free cure policy for immigrants. She is also looking forward to being vaccinated in the third quarter next year as the country has scheduled.

At this time, as a florist, Giang still has enough orders to "survive." She and her husband have consistently followed the rules, including wearing masks and keeping a minimum distance from others.

Thuy said her family was not in a situation where they need to think about an urgent return to Vietnam. The pandemic situation was not serious where she lives in Japan, and her son’s school was still open. Also, any return would be difficult because Japan is set to close its borders until the end of January 2021. Furthermore, Thuy feels the risk of catching a viral infection is higher when traveling.

She said she preferred the idea of having a holiday with the family in Nagano rather than visit other provinces to celebrate the New Year.

"I don't want to go far during the winter break. There will be high demand for traveling and it's not good for containing he virus," Thuy said.

The willingness to stay back contrasts with the time of the first Covid-19 outbreak, when the Vietnamese diaspora were desperate to return from all over the world, especially because Vietnam was containing the pandemic far more effectively than most countries.

Vietnam has recorded 1,456 Covid-19 cases so far with 35 deaths. No community transmission has occurred for nearly a month.

Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has said repatriation flights for people in difficult situations will be arranged based on citizens’ wishes, taking into account Covid-19 developments in Vietnam and domestic quarantining capacity.

In this context, the decision of the Vietnamese diaspora in East and Southeast Asia to stay put and not return will be a relief.

Over 75,000 Vietnamese have been repatriated amid existing Covid-19 travel restrictions this year, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said Monday.

Quynh, Nhung, and Nguyen see difficulties in traveling as their main obstacle in returning to Vietnam. They have to pay a large sum of money for testing and quarantine. So they are not keen on returning at the moment.

Dong in Thailand has an important reason to stay because he has to manage five restaurants in his chain where the main dish is pho, the rice noodle soup that Vietnam is famous for.

Furthermore, "the best option is no traveling. That is an effective way to help contain the pandemic."

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