Think national, act local: localities gear up for Covid-19 fight

By Phan Anh   August 21, 2020 | 04:56 pm PT
Think national, act local: localities gear up for Covid-19 fight
A medical worker takes blood sample from a man returning from Da Nang for Covid-19 testing, July 30, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.
With Vietnam looking to avoid repeating an economically bruising nationwide social distancing period to curb Covid-19, localities have stepped up to the plate.

After going over three months without a single community transmission of the novel coronavirus, Vietnam has found itself grappling with a second wave of infections since July 25, when one case was detected in the central city of Da Nang.

What began as a single, isolated case exploded into outbreaks in 14 other cities and provinces. In less than a month, over 500 new local transmissions were recorded, all associated with Da Nang, which has become the epicenter of Vietnam's second wave of Covid-19 infections.

While Vietnam gained plaudits from all over the world for its very early and effective response to the novel coronavirus, keeping the number of infections very low, deaths to nil and economic disruption to the minimum (compared to other countries) there was no escaping the serious socioeconomic impacts on the nation, with many key sectors and businesses suffering losses, and millions losing their jobs or having work reduced.

When the Covid-19 community transmission resurfaced in Da Nang, a highly popular tourism spot that was attracting hundreds of thousands of domestic visitors, the country swung into preventive action again.

However, this time, despite hundreds of new cases and 25 deaths, the effort was to avoid the repeat of a nationwide social distancing campaign, given its deleterious socioeconomic impacts.

It is against this background that localities nationwide have taken responsibility for initiating their own measures to tackle the pandemic.

Moving quickly

Since the second outbreak happened in central Vietnam, localities in the region were quick to adopt preventative measures to curb the pandemic. The provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai, the neighbors of Da Nang, were among the most affected and vulnerable to the city outbreak. They quickly moved to contain and prevent infections through travel restrictions, mass testing and social distancing, among other methods.

Da Nang took the lead by launching a social distancing campaign on July 28, banning large public gatherings and asking people to stay home.

Its neighbor Quang Nam followed suit, closing down entertainment services like bars, dance clubs and karaoke parlors starting July 29, before imposing social distancing measures for an indefinite period in several of its districts and towns, including tourism hub Hoi An.

Thua Thien-Hue, not having recorded any local transmission case since July 25, said it would place people returning from Da Nang, Quang Nam, Quang Tri and northern Hai Duong Province in quarantine zones as a preventative measure. Hai Duong has recorded 13 cases and is now the third hardest hit locality after Da Nang and Quang Nam.

Khanh Hoa, home to popular beach destination Nha Trang, has also suspended non-essential services like bars, clubs and karaoke parlors, banned large public gatherings and requested people to stay home starting August 10. The province has recorded only one local transmission case since July 25.

A beach in Nha Trang is deserted, August 2, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc.

A beach in Nha Trang is deserted, August 2, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc.

In northern Vietnam, new cases have also been detected in Hanoi, Bac Giang, Lang Son, Thai Binh and Thanh Hoa.

Hanoi, with 12 confirmed local transmission cases starting July 25, has already banned activities with large gatherings starting July 29, followed by the closure of bars and karaoke parlors starting August 1. It has also required restaurants and food stalls to adhere to social distancing measures starting August 19. The capital city is also testing around 70,000 people returning from Da Nang for the novel coronavirus, of which more than 30,000 were to have samples taken by Thursday.

On Friday, the capital city suspended activities in its iconic Old Quarter and walking streets. The walking streets had reopened in mid-May after being closed since February.

Hai Duong launched a 15-day social distancing period starting August 14. Its neighbor Hai Phong, a major port city, despite not recording any local transmission case from the current outbreak, has also closed down dance clubs and karaoke parlors starting August 5, and bars and Internet cafes starting August 15. It requires people traveling from Hai Duong to undergo body temperature checks at checkpoints between the two localities, starting August 14.

In southern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, which has not recorded a local transmission case in 20 days, has banned large public gatherings and closed down bars and dance floors starting July 31. It is also medically monitoring people entering the city from Hanoi, Hai Duong, Da Nang, Quang Nam, Quang Tri and northern Bac Ninh Province starting Thursday. Anyone who has either been in close contact with Covid-19 patients or returned from places with active social distancing measures are to be quarantined.

Nguyen Tri Dung, director of the HCMC CDC, said: "People need to be honest and voluntary in medical declarations and quarantine, in order to protect themselves, their families, their communities and help the city control the pandemic and maintain the new normal."

First wave impacts

The central government has said multiple times that a second nationwide social distancing scheme should be ruled out.

By June, around 31 million people in Vietnam had either lost their jobs or had their incomes reduced due to the pandemic, with the number expected to rise by the end of the year, according to the General Statistics Office.

The country's unemployment rate in the second quarter rose to 4.46 percent in urban areas, the highest in a decade, the report said.

The number of businesses temporarily suspending operations was 29,200 in the first half of the year, up 38.2 percent over the same period last year, according to another report from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.

A woman vendor stands outside HCMCs popular Ben Thanh Market, where most booths have been closed due to a huge drop of customers, March 27, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A woman vendor stands outside HCMC's popular Ben Thanh Market, where most booths have been closed due to a huge drop of customers, March 27, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

In a meeting with the National Steering Committee on Covid-19 Prevention on August 4, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam said Vietnam must strive to prevent a second Covid-19 wave, adding that another nationwide social distancing campaign must not happen, while the battle with Covid-19 would continue "for a long time."

To date, Vietnam has recorded 1,009 Covid-19 cases - 438 active patients and 25 deaths.

Previously on August 3, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had also ordered localities which has recorded local Covid-19 transmissions to balance between employing disease prevention measures and minimizing negative impacts on people's lives and the economy.

Hitches aplenty

So far, localities have been trying to do that, with only the most heavily hit or vulnerable localities employing social distancing measures, while authorities are trying to contain outbreaks in their own areas by confining quarantining measures to facilities and specific areas. Other preventive measures like wearing masks, mass testing and travel restrictions are being deployed to prevent the spread of infections.

But this process has not been free of problems.

For example, the Vinh Nguyen Ward People's Committee of Nha Trang Town was criticized earlier this month for inappropriately announcing that bars, karaoke parlors and dance clubs in the ward must be suspended starting August 2.

The town’s authorities had not issued any document saying non-essential services in the area must be suspended. The ward was later requested to retract its decision.

In the southern province of Dong Nai, a primary-middle school allowed over 800 students to return to class starting August 17, despite the provincial People's Committee having suspended activities in educational and vocational facilities, except kindergartens, starting August 3.

The school was ordered to suspend teaching the next day and divert its resources to fight Covid-19.

Some citizens have also begun to neglect Covid-19 prevention measures, even in areas with rising numbers of new cases or otherwise vulnerable to infections.

In Quang Nam, despite the province being one of the largest Covid-19 hotspots, many people can still be seen going to markets without masks. Despite local checkpoints constantly telling people to go home if there's no urgent reason to be outside, traffic on the streets doesn't seem to have decreased significantly, local media have reported.

Meanwhile in Hanoi, a palatial temple in Tay Ho District has had to be closed down due to the large number of people going there to make offerings on Wednesday. Despite most wearing masks, the presence of thousands in one place made it difficult for authorities to ensure proper distancing measures.

"If we put barriers at the gate, people would be jam-packed outside. To have so many people gather together while the pandemic's still developing complicatedly is very dangerous," said Do Ngoc Long, deputy chairman of the Quang An Ward People's Committee, adding that around 4,000 people had gone to the temple within Wednesday alone.

Despite the hitches, the central government is sticking to the strategy to contain outbreaks locally, as stressed by the Head of the Government Office, Mai Tien Dung.

As he put it: "Quarantining should be limited to an appropriate area to both extinguish an outbreak and ensuring that businesses, production and commerce are not affected."

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