No time for mourning in the Covid-19 trenches

By Hoang Thuy, Thuy An   April 19, 2020 | 12:30 pm GMT+7
Those on the Covid-19 frontline have little chance to lay loved ones to rest as the battle for pandemic containment drags out.

It was almost 3 a.m. when Lieutenant Bui Quang Huy, 22, received a call from his mother. "Your father passed away," she told him.

Huy felt as if someone had squeezed his heart, his eyes welling up. He crouched in the corner of his tent sobbing, surrounded by the mountains of northwestern Vietnam.

His father passed away on April 7 while Huy was on duty in Son La Province near the Vietnam-Laos border to prevent illegal entry amid the country’s efforts to contain the Covid-19 spread.

Prevented from returning home by Vietnam’s social distancing campaign effective from April 1, Huy said goodbye to his father in spirit over 400 kilometers away.

"If I went back to my hometown to attend the funeral, I would meet many people and upon returning to my post, I’d have to be isolated for 14 days, my patrolling and border control duty would fall on the shoulders of my teammates. My father was a soldier who fought a war, he would understand and sympathize with his son," he said.

The next morning, the command post helped Huy set up an altar at the station, with the permission of his superiors. Wearing the white funeral headband, the young soldier bowed in front of his father’s picture.

Bui Quang Huy stand by his fathers altar while his superiors and teammates pay respect to his late father at Sap Sap Border in northern province of Son La near Vietnam-Laos border. Photo by Trong Thoi

Bui Quang Huy stands besides the altar while his superiors and colleagues pay respect to his late father at Sap Sap border gate in Lang Son Province. Photo by Trong Thoi.

The head of Moc Chau District and Huy’s colleagues also came to pay respect. A representative of his station who was authorized to go to Huy’s hometown attended the funeral on his behalf.

"Use your pain as motivation to thrive," Lieutenant Colonel Sa Trong Thoi told Huy as he gave him a hug.

The consolation reminded Huy of the last time he met his father during the Lunar New Year in January. Huy’s father was seriously ill and couldn’t even speak. Huy dragged a mattress next to his bed and took care of him while at home. He told his father about his work, and could tell through his father’s eyes that he was telling him to do his job well.

"When I was doing my military service in mid-2018, I was allowed to visit home and told my family I was going to take part in a special reconnaissance mission, and dad was very happy. He told me two things - always learn and work mindfully and wholeheartedly. That was the last time I ever heard him speak," Huy said.

Huy called his mother every day for a week to cheer her up. He told her about the makeshift post in the bamboo forest in Hong Lua Village, Long Sap Commune, Moc Chau District, that lies close to the borderline.

The temporary post is made of green tarpaulins, where Huy and his colleagues are on duty 24 hours a day. Their post is 22 kilometers from the main station. On rainy days, the one-meter wide road to their makeshift station is covered in mud and impossible to navigate.

"After graduating from military school in July 2019, I decided to go to Son La to work, and on September 23 last year, I was assigned to the border guard station at Sap Sap. This was an opportunity to experience living on the mountain," Huy said.

In another part of the country, Lieutenant Nguyen Dinh Thong, 26, shares the same agony. The Armed Captain of Thanh Tri Border Guard in the southern province of Long An also had to pay respect to his dead father from the frontline.

On April 2, the news was broken to Thong when he was patrolling in Thanh Tri Commune in the central Ha Tinh Province, over 1,000 kilometers from his hometown.

His father’s death came at a time when Cambodia had confirmed Covid-19 infections, with border patrols tightened.

The Laos border in Thanh Tri Commune has many trails and openings through which people from either side often pass to visit relatives. This makes their mission a critically important one as infections can spread without proper control.

That renders Thong to stay put, even when, as the first son, he is traditionally expected to carry out important rituals in the family.

Thanh Tri Border Guard Command also made an altar for Thong’s father right in front of the checkpoint. Many came to pay respect to his late father.

During a recent online meeting of the Steering Committee of Covid-19 Prevention under the Ministry of Defense, the border guard commander Hoang Xuan Chien was touched by stories of people like Thong and Huy.

He said many soldiers couldn’t go home even when their parents and siblings passed away, their wives and children were sick and in need of emergency treatment, and that dozens of officials and soldiers had to postpone their weddings or their children’s weddings, as they carry out their missions.

About 10,000 soldiers have been on duty along the borderline since late January, following the epidemic breaking out in China, which shares a 1,350 kilometer border with Vietnam.

Vietnam also shares a border with Laos and Cambodia where guards are on 24/24 patrol duty to prevent people from entering and exiting illegally.

Not a soldier, but Hoang Thi Thu Huong couldn’t go home to attend her father’s funeral either. The nurse from Hospital No. 2 in the northern Quang Ninh Province learned about her father's death on the morning of April 13 but could not go home because she was on duty in a quarantine zone.

Hoang Thi Thu Huong (right) and her colleagues mourn her fathers death in front of his altar that her hospital helps set up. Photo courtesy of Hospital No.2 

Hoang Thi Thu Huong (right) and her colleagues mourn her father's death in front of his altar her hospital helped set up. Photo courtesy of Quang Ninh Hospital No. 2.

The 48-year-old woman is the head nurse at zone B6 of the hospital where Covid-19 patients in the province are treated. She has not been home for over two months.

"I live in the same city with my family but because of my duties, I have to bow to my father from afar," Huong said.

"I have to leave my personal affairs on the side to get my job done."

The hospital’s board of directors helped her set up an altar to commemorate her father in the third floor nutrition hub.

Hospital heads and staff came to burn incense out of respect and gave their condolences.

"There is no greater loss than losing a father or mother. Yet circumstances prevented her from seeing her father for the last time," Doctor Nguyen Quoc Hung, director of the hospital, said.

"I hope everyone fulfills their duties, and find the time to empathize with one another. Together we will get through this," he said.

 
 
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