People in Vietnamese province face coronavirus stigma

By Thanh Lam, Hoang Phuong   February 28, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
People in Vietnamese province face coronavirus stigma
All transactions with the outside world are strictly monitored by authorities at control checkpoints in Son Loi Commune, Vinh Phuc Province, February 20, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
Before her daughter's wedding, Pham Thi Ha went to her commune people’s committee office to ask for a certificate that there were no Covid-19 cases in her neighborhood.

It was to reassure her daughter’s future in-laws who live in the central province of Quang Binh, 547 kilometers south of Vinh Phuc, where the wedding will take place.

The demand for it in fact came from authorities there.

"Your family is in a coronavirus-hit area, and guests invited to the wedding here are very concerned," the in-laws told Ha and her husband, Chung, on the phone.

The northern Vinh Phuc Province, which has had the largest number of coronavirus cases in Vietnam - 11, has been unfairly stigmatized.

Ha lives in Ba Hien Commune in Binh Xuyen District, not far from Son Loi Commune, which was locked down for 14 days from February 13 after six cases of Covid-19 were found there.

Though Binh Xuyen District, with nine cases in all, has not officially been designated an outbreak area, Son Loi’s lockdown has meant people are wary of the entire district.

This has become a hassle for Ha’s family. She has had to constantly explain to people elsewhere about the situation, but they are not convinced.

Her visit to the authorities' office was in vain since she was told "The commune authorities are not experts in the medical field to issue such a certificate."

While seeing Ha out of the office, the head of the office advised her to limit their travels and let the in-laws organize the wedding without the bride's family.

"If I knew this would happen, I would have held the marriage earlier," Chung said.

The health ministry had confirmed the country's first two cases on January 23, at the start of the Lunar New Year holidays.

Ha's daughter returned to Vietnam in November after studying for five years in Japan, where she met her boyfriend.

A week after their return they got engaged, and the 25-year-old woman went to spend her first Lunar New Year with her in-laws.

Ha has reduced the number of guests from her family’s side from 10 to only four: she, her husband and their fathers.

The four had to go to a commune hospital for a health check to ensure there is no sign of the virus.

She was also mulling over the idea of renting a car with a Hanoi rather than a Vinh Phuc license plate.

"We don’t want people to worry needlessly," she said.

There was supposed to be a wedding ceremony in Ba Hien Commune too, but that has been postponed.

"We will organize it once the outbreak is over," Ha said.

Their neighbors too had to postpone their daughter’s wedding.

In Son Loi Commune, Nguyen Anh Tuan, deputy head of the propaganda department of the Binh Xuyen District Party Committee, and his wife, two children and mother-in-law have not left the commune since the lockdown was announced.

Before the announcement by the Ministry of Health about the diagnosed cases in the province, they visited relatives during the Lunar New Year without realizing they would soon be stigmatized as "people from the outbreak area."

On February 12, a day before checkpoints were set up by the authorities to lock down Son Loi, Tuan received a call from his boss who told him to work from home.

Tuan told his family to refrain from going to crowded places or meeting friends coming from other places. The family also cancelled a trip to Song Lo Commune in the same province to attend a relative’s wedding, because "it is not a good idea to go anywhere at the moment even though we are not infected."

Tuan told his wife to buy food and store in the fridge to prepare for the quarantine. Every now and then he would go to the village gate to receive food from his father-in-law or gas for his motorbike.

Tuan regularly apprised people outside, including his boss, about what was happening in Son Loi.

Ta Thi Luong said, "I live 30 kilometers from Son Loi, but I’m still a Vinh Phuc person." This resident of Tam Dao District has been tarred with the same Covid-19 brush as everyone else in the province.

Last week she and her brother went to a temple in the northern province of Lao Cai. They wanted to donate money to the temple and the person in charge of accepting donations greeted them with a big smile.

But the moment they said they were from Vinh Phuc, the smile was gone and was replaced with coldness. She took their money nevertheless, but without uttering a single word, and adjusted her facemask pointedly.

Since then Luong has decided not to reveal where she is from to anyone.

On February 14, one day after the commune lockdown, standing vice chairman Le Duy Thanh said coordinated measures had been taken to contain the disease.

"Vinh Phuc will not let the disease spread."

Only Son Loi Commune is under quarantine, not the rest of Vinh Phuc, he pointed out.

Any entity or individual who isolates the people of Vinh Phuc Province not in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s guidance and is guilty of violating the law, he warned.

Bui Huy Vinh, head of the province Party Committee’s propaganda department, expressed concern about the spread of inaccurate and incomplete information about the outbreak in Vinh Phuc, which indicated a lack of compassion for people here.

The last of the 16 people infected with the novel coronavirus in Vietnam was discharged on Wednesday. He is the father of an infected woman and was the 11th person in Vinh Phuc Province to test positive.

No Covid-19 infection has been recorded in Vietnam since February 13.

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