Experts rue false sense of security in Vietnam's Covid-19 fight

By Viet Anh   May 14, 2021 | 06:30 pm PT
Many Vietnamese people seem to have a false sense of security, which needs to be removed so new Covid-19 outbreaks don't get out of hand, experts say.

They stress that people’s compliance has become the most crucial factor in the nation's fight against the pandemic.

One reason the number of new cases in Vietnam is increasing fast is the immunity of 2020 is absent, said Dr Ali Mokdad, Chief Strategy Officer, Population Health, University of Washington.

He explained that previous exposure to the novel coronavirus had provided Vietnamese with some immunity, but it does not protect people from the new variant, the Indian one. So people are susceptible to it. Immunity for the new variant is zero percent, he stressed.

The second reason, Mokdad said, was that before the latest outbreak, citizens had a "false sense of security." They may have thought "we haven't seen it for a long time, so we can go out and do whatever we want, we are not going to get Covid-19."

Most notably, the rate of mask wearing in Vietnam at some points in time seemed to be lower than last year when people seem to be "tired of the pandemic."

In September 2020, the proportion stood at over 65 percent of Vietnam's population; it reduced to 58 percent in mid-Jan this year. Early in the pandemic, everybody was afraid and they were paying attention to the rules. However, despite the fourth wave happening, the ratio was at just 61 percent mid-May, Mokdad said, citing statistics compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) under the University of Washington.

The ratio of mask wearing decreased to less than 50 percent in October 2020 because there was no new case in the community. It surged to 76 percent in February 2021 amid the third outbreak in Hai Duong Province. Mask use is highly recommended by Vietnamese government as a measure against Covid spread, while the IHME said mask use can reduce transmission by 30 percent or more.

The ratio of mask use in Vietnam since September 2020, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Graphics by IHME.

The ratio of mask use in Vietnam since September 2020, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Graphics by IHME.

Mokdad warned that Vietnam could see a rapid rise of new cases, like that seen in India, if the government does not pay attention. He noted that in late April, Vietnam had a long holiday and many people went on vacation. Increased mobility and lower mask wearing is a recipe for disaster, he said, adding: "The situation in Vietnam is very dangerous."

At a time Vietnam does not have enough vaccines for its population, people's awareness and compliance is the most important thing for the country to control the new Covid-19 wave, Mokdad said.

The IHME projects that by September this year, only about 18.5 million Vietnamese citizens will be vaccinated. Therefore, vaccines are not going to provide immunity for a long time because the country does not have enough vaccines to vaccinate needed numbers, Mokdad said.

Professor Mark Jit with The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said scientists do not know enough about the Indian variant for now. It is possible that it spreads faster than most other variants, so Vietnam and other countries need to be careful while further data is being collected to understand it.

Jit agreed with other experts that Vietnam, like other countries, is caught in a dangerous situation, because there are many variants. Some of them are more transmissible, the mortality is higher and immunity programs work are less effective against them.

The Indian variant is the one people are most worried about, he said.

"Therefore, it needs to be taken very seriously."

Thousands of people are in Bai Sau beach in Vung Tau province on their vacation on April 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress: Truong Ha.

Thousands of people are on the beach in Vung Tau that neighbors Ho Chi Minh City on their vacation on April 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Truong Ha.

Professor Kelley Lee of Canada’s Simon Fraser University said the spread of variants was extremely concerning and can easily undo much of the hard work that Vietnam has been doing over the past 16 months.

Vietnam has won a lot of admiration from other countries with its response to the Covid-19 pandemic so far; and they can learn much from what has been achieved, she said.

However, Vietnam needs to review current protocols to ensure that cases of people infected with new variants do not turn into large-scale community transmissions.

"We have seen this happen in many countries very quickly," she said.

Back to basics

Mokdad feels that the best thing for Vietnam to do right now is to go back to wearing masks and practicing safe distance measures to control the virus until the country reaches herd immunity by vaccination.

He said old measures will work on any variant; the difference now is that the authorities will have to be even stricter because everybody is susceptible to new variants. With his own experience of working with colleagues in Vietnam several years ago, Mokdad said he understands the problems of being a country with a dense population. Furthermore, it is difficult to go to a country where case numbers are very low and say "we have a problem."

For that reason, the government should take action before people let their guard down. If the government does not want to shut down the economy, it has to be strict with preventative measures, he said.

"Whatever the government is doing should be continued. They need to be tough and strict. It will help a lot."

Professor Robert Booy with Australia’s University of Sydney also said Vietnam needs to persist with what it has already done. In some ways, the country should further improve quarantine and social isolation measures because it's at risk of even more transmissible virus strains, he said.

Booy also said that the virus can be contained with simple physical measures, but in order to control it in the long term, countries must act quickly in implementing their vaccination programs.

With the dramatic rise in the number of cases in some countries in Asia, including India, Nepal and some of the surrounding countries, people should consider the higher risks of importation involved, said Dr Karen Grépin with the University of Hong Kong.

In other words, Vietnam and other nations should consider placing additional restrictions on people coming in from such countries in order to minimize the risk. Vietnam should also step up security measures at border areas towards minimizing opportunities for the virus to spread widely among the community.

Lee said variants can emerge anywhere in the world and Vietnam can learn from countries where variants have gone out of control. Public health authorities need to be ready to adapt and change as the risk shifts.

Jit said that the intensity of measures can be calibrated according to the situation. But if it is necessary that workplaces, schools and other places be closed for longer periods, it has to be done.

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