Covid-19: How UK and Vietnam can help each other reach a new normal

By Gareth Ward   May 9, 2020 | 04:06 pm PT
A year ago, I visited the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in HCMC. I talked to the doctors about measles, typhoid and dengue fever. I did not think to mention respiratory diseases.
British Ambassador Gareth War

Gareth Ward

I had never heard of the coronavirus.

Now the world has changed, with the biggest pandemic challenge of our lifetime. In the past, Asia has faced SARS, and Africa has faced Ebola, but now the whole world faces Covid-19.

As I write, it has been several weeks since the most recent case of local transmission of Covid-19 in Vietnam. The world media is reporting on how Vietnam has managed to contain the virus to less than 300 confirmed cases in a population of over 97 million people. I would like to share a few reflections on Vietnam’s approach, how Vietnam and the U.K. can cooperate to keep the situation under control globally, and crucially, how we can rebuild our economies and societies for the better in a new normal.

In a short space of time, Covid-19 has become a major factor in all our lives and work. My team, for instance, has supported British nationals in Vietnam infected by the virus and has helped thousands of British tourists return home. I have been touched by the dedication and compassion of the Vietnamese healthcare professionals who have helped save the lives of British nationals and made our work here possible.

We have all had to learn new healthcare terminology. We have had to adapt to new ways for working. We have all had to learn new digital skills as our children have been out of school. We have all had to make difficult decisions to remain away from our family and friends.

Vietnam responded to the Covid-19 outbreak early and robustly, initially closing schools and contact tracing and isolating those arriving from abroad. The success of this approach has been based on a combination of strictly monitoring all people entering the country; ramping up testing and tracing; communicating actively with communities; and effectively treating those infected.

A woman from Ha Loi village in Hanoi brings home-grown vegetables to sell at a market, a day after Covid-19 lockdown on her village was lifted, May 7, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy. 

A woman from Ha Loi village in Hanoi brings home-grown vegetables to sell at a market, a day after Covid-19 lockdown on her village was lifted, May 7, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy. 

Undoubtedly, Vietnam’s recent experience of SARS and existing infectious disease burden both played a role in the prompt response and prepared people to follow public health guidance. Vietnam has for many years been proactively working with international partners in disease control. For instance the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) has offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, conducting world leading research on epidemiology.

Globally, we face an ongoing and evolving challenge. New waves of infection cannot be ruled out, we mustn’t be complacent. Vietnam, along with the rest of the world, faces complicated decisions in choosing how to balance public health benefits and economic cost. There are many unknowns: how to reopen borders in a safe way, how to treat those who become unwell as effectively as possible, how to accelerate the vaccine development and deployment process. What is known is that unless the pandemic is ended everywhere, people will continue to become unwell and die, global economic recovery will be delayed and the risk of resurgence will remain.

Only through coming together can we develop affordable treatments and vaccines, which are accessible to everyone who needs them, as quickly as possible. AstraZeneca, a leading U.K. pharmaceutical company, and the University of Oxford are already making good progress, with a commitment to developing and distributing the university's Covid-19 vaccine candidate ‘ChAdOx1 nCoV-19’ which is currently undergoing human trials in the U.K. We will also continue to work closely with ASEAN to promote closer economic cooperation and champion the mutual benefits of free trade, which are key to economic recovery and future growth. No one country or organization has the answer, and global collaboration and partnership at a scale never seen before will be key to tackling this pandemic.

The UK has committed over £6.5 billion ($8 billion) in aid and financial support through the United Nations and other bodies to tackle the pandemic and support the world’s most vulnerable people. We see it as part of our responsibility as a major aid donor to work with international partners on healthcare issues. That’s why we recently co-hosted the virtual Coronavirus Global Response Summit, which resulted in an $8 billion commitment by world leaders to fight Covid-19. We will also be leading a virtual Global Vaccine Summit in June to raise the level of ambition. I am proud of the research and innovation being undertaken here in Vietnam with U.K. organizations, for instance the vaccine development being undertaken by Vietnamese company VABIOTECH, which builds on technology shared by Bristol University. British healthcare companies and experts want to make meaningful and long-lasting contributions to Vietnamese society.

Our experience of the impacts of the pandemic has been a sobering reminder that while governments and international organizations agree funding structures and set strategic directions, it is those on the frontline, such as researchers, healthcare professionals and key workers who risk their lives to translate these into actions that save lives.

I hope that the lessons we are all learning about public health, social cohesion and what we can achieve when we cooperate, are remembered as we move towards a new normal. This pandemic is affecting us all, but those hardest hit are the poor and vulnerable groups who will bear the health and economic costs of the pandemic for the longest. We have an opportunity to rebuild institutions that are more inclusive and sustainable, and I hope that co-operation between the U.K. and Vietnam can set an example for that.

*Gareth Ward is the British Ambassador to Vietnam.

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