Deputy National Defense Minister Vo Minh Luong spoke to VnExpress about the perils of fighting an invisible foe.
The army has decided to withdraw its forces after completing its mission of helping HCMC and other southern localities in the Covid-19 fight. From a commander’s perspective, what can you share with us about the past three months?
In a campaign with a thin line between life and death, we only wished to do what’s best for the people, not knowing exactly how many tasks this entailed. We had to be flexible and creative. I find it difficult to summarize everything that the people and the political system, including the army, have achieved.
Transporting goods was a normal task for us, but shopping for people was something we were not prepared for. It was strange at first, but eventually things fell into place. Then there was the particular job of transporting the dead bodies and ashes of those who died of Covid-19, which was unprecedented and emotionally taxing on the soldiers. But we learned to let go of the fear, as we knew we had to act with love, compassion and a sense of duty.
The ministry dispatched around 137,000 soldiers and militia members for the job. This was the largest army mobilization since the war. How was that decision made?
After a meeting with the Politburo, secretary of the municipal Party Committee Nguyen Van Nen discussed raising the alarm level in the Covid-19 fight. HCMC had consulted with the government’s Covid-19 taskforce and considered tightening coronavirus restrictions, allowing the army to take care of food supply for the general populace. We discussed this issue the whole day.
At that time, HCMC had already gone through more than a month of strict social distancing. I remember saying that if HCMC wants to take a step further in prevention, two conditions had to be met. One was preparing enough food and other necessities for 10 million people for a month, and there had to be enough medicine and medical equipment. If these two conditions were met, the army would be willing to take on any task the city gave us.
After much consideration, the taskforce and the city both agreed to go full throttle. Starting August 23, residents were asked to stay home and the army was dispatched to make sure social distancing measures were followed and medical capabilities were enhanced, among other tasks.
How were the army forces distributed?
As we faced the onslaught of the coronavirus and an overloaded medical system, the Politburo and the Prime Minister decided to send in reinforcements, including the army, to HCMC and southern provinces. It was the right decision at the right moment.
Over 130,000 soldiers were dispatched. 20,000 were sent to the border, and around 100,000 stationed in HCMC. Most of them were military forces already stationed in the south, and only around 20,000 came from the north.
That might seem like a lot of people, but they were only a fraction compared to the 10 million population of HCMC. We had to perform multiple tasks at the same time, including patrolling, goods transportation, testing and vaccinating. But thanks to clear directions from the Central Military Commission and the ministry, as well as the sense of duty we had to the people, we were able to make sacrifices and overcome many challenges.
The coronavirus situation in HCMC back in August was very tough, requiring all resources. The army also had to come in at such short notice. How did you respond to the challenge?
All forces were trained for at least one-two days before coming to HCMC. We were trained to do tasks like patrolling at traffic stations, maintaining order, which is what we do as the military. We also had to persuade people to follow social distancing orders, so we made soldiers read the regulations, recorded them and broadcast them on loudspeakers.
The same was with Covid-19 testing. The army helped the city form 500 teams of medics, but they weren’t enough to perform mass testing quickly. There was one time when the city requested 5,000 soldiers to take samples, so we sent in 1,000 from the north and the rest from existing forces in the south. We asked for 4,000 test kits for training purposes one day before we reached HCMC. That’s how we were able to send enough soldiers so quickly.
Among the tasks in HCMC, which part did you feel the military could have done better?
Out of all the tasks, the most troublesome was erecting checkpoints at entrances. Many people tried to go past them, so if we weren’t firm enough, they would break through. This happened at checkpoints in Long An Province. We were afraid the same thing would happen in Tien Giang, where people gathered in the thousands. So I ordered more reinforcements to the checkpoints, adding hospital frameworks there for screening purposes. Those who tested positive must stay back, and those who tested negative for the virus could pass. People then understood they could come and go, and not be absolutely confined to one place, so they gave up on trying to circumvent the checkpoints.
One morning, we let thousands of people go through the checkpoints without letting the virus break through to other areas in the Mekong Delta. I also informed localities that they could test people trying to get in if needed.
Another challenge was the shopping. Many soldiers are complete novices at that. But there was no other way than to take it on, and they eventually got used to it.
Then there were the dead bodies and the ashes. Some soldiers were terrified of the task at first, but we reassured them and they managed to get it done as well.
These were new and unprecedented missions for us as soldiers. We had never done anything like it before. But we went ahead and did it anyway.
What can you tell us about the sacrifices made by soldiers, those who lost loved ones but couldn’t go back home to grieve, or continuing with the mission despite the fear of getting infected?
Our sacrifices are nothing compared to what our people have lost. But as a commander, I see those sacrifices. Dozens of doctors and nurses at the frontline were coronavirus patients themselves, yet they all chose to stay.
Not just health workers, but soldiers and militia members also got infected a lot, and had to be treated. At first, such cases were only reported to team leaders, and they didn’t inform me until much later. It showed their spirit of duty and sacrifice.
Many soldiers also lost their parents and grandparents while they were on missions. But amid the coronavirus outbreak, they all decided to stay back and grieve the loss of loved ones from afar.
Looking back at the three months of fighting the coronavirus, as the head of the government’s Covid-19 taskforce, what decision did you think was the most important one for HCMC and other southern localities?
When the fourth wave broke out, HCMC has gone all out to stop it. But the Delta variant proved to be a formidable foe, spreading quickly and embedding itself in the population, especially at industrial parks and neighborhoods with high population density, catching the city off-guard. Medical facilities were overwhelmed, and more people were dying every day.
So the government decided on the three planks: quick isolation, stringent contact tracing and quick testing. Each campaign was carried out in two-three waves spanning over three-four days, which helped to remove coronavirus cases from the populace and cut down the chain of transmission.
Regarding Covid-19 treatment, we created several ICUs and field hospitals, equipped with over 6,000 beds with enough equipment, medicine and personnel.
The Prime Minister said each ward and commune should be a fortress against the coronavirus, and each resident would be a soldier. That’s how the city was able to quickly amass human resources and medical equipment for the fight. He also requested mobile medical stations to take care of Covid-19 cases at home, ensuring early and easy access for the people. That plan helped reduce the number of severe cases and deaths, relieving pressure from medical facilities.
To do all this, the government decided to send a large number of reinforcements across the nation to the south, especially to HCMC. There were vaccination campaigns, mass testing and isolation tasks to be done, all the while ensuring that the people did not go hungry and performing other tasks.
After such concerted efforts, the situation in HCMC and southern provinces has been put under control. The number of deaths and new infections are dropping, especially the fatalities.
What are the lessons to keep in mind so that what happened in HCMC is not repeated in other places?
There are at least seven factors to keep in mind. First, we have to trust the leadership of the Party and the political system, which instructed relevant authorities – the ministries of health, defense and public security, to take decisions.
Second, we need to have reasonably accurate predictions and evaluations of the pandemic, especially regarding new variants.
Third, the political system would need to play a prominent role in the fight. Leaders have to be responsible and do their best; it’s the only way to put the disease under control.
Fourth, the unity and cooperation of the people is invaluable in the fight, along with contributions from businesses and Vietnamese from abroad, who have provided so many resources to fight the coronavirus.
Fifth is the people’s consent and willingness to abide by the law.
Sixth is the preparation of food and other necessities, both by the people and authorities.
And seventh is the presence of medical facilities with enough equipment, medicine and personnel.
Having spent a long time in HCMC as a commanding officer of Military Zone 7 before becoming the deputy defense minister, what were your feelings during and after the mission to fight the pandemic?
If I were the head of the Covid-19 fighting committee for the defense ministry in the south, the job would have been different, even easier. But when I was appointed to be the head of the government’s Covid-19 taskforce in the south, I knew it would a big challenge. That’s why I laid out all the frameworks for the tasks right at the outset so that cooperation between the different stakeholders would be effective.
When I came to HCMC, the city was already in the grip of a crisis, with the coronavirus having the upper hand. I spent many sleepless nights. I frequently accompanied Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam to see the field first-hand; one time we even rode a motorbike to visit coronavirus cases in their own homes, to see if they were doing well.
For nearly three months, I never saw one smile on any of the city leaders’ faces. The long fight meant an unimaginable workload and a pressure cooker situation. But I also saw the fire in their eyes. They were not willing to let the coronavirus win.
Everything we did paid off in the end. But I’m still worried, because the "zero Covid" strategy has been abandoned and we’ve decided to live alongside the virus. It means people could become complacent and neglect prevention measures, allowing outbreaks to recur.
What will the military do next?
The situation in HCMC and certain provinces like Dong Nai, Long An and Binh Duong has been put under control step by step. We’ve agreed with localities to adjust our forces in three phases. From October 1 to October 15, the ministry would withdraw all ground forces. From October 15 to October 31, health workers from the north in field hospitals, who were still in schools, would be withdrawn. By the end of November, we would continue making adjustments based on the coronavirus situation, for example, disbanding military field hospitals once there are no more active cases.
Huu Cong, Van Phu, Cong Khang