Crunching Covid numbers won't do much good

January 21, 2022 | 05:12 pm PT
Vu Viet Tuan Journalist
We are at a critical stage of learning to live with Covid-19, and we should realize that the number of daily cases no longer carries its earlier significance.

Hanoians are now used to the fact that restaurants just some hundred meters apart can be open or closed depending on which district they're located in.

I've seen coffee shops on one side of the street allowed to stay open, while those on the opposite side are not. Even within a district, what ward that a shop belongs to can make the difference between opening and closing.

For weeks now, food and beverage establishments have had to follow traffic lights operated in an apparently arbitrary fashion.

Last week, my family went out for dinner, but all our favorite places on Hoang Quoc Viet and To Hieu streets only allowed takeaways. These places are usually very busy, with people streaming in and out every night.

Just a couple steps away was Tran Cung Street, with one half in Cau Giay District and the other half in Bac Tu Liem. One half was bustling with customers while the other watched in glum silence.

Cau Giay recently became a high risk area for the novel coronavirus, meaning food and beverage shops had to suspend in-person dining and only allow takeaways. Meanwhile, Bac Tu Liem District, classified as medium risk, allowed its establishments to remain open.

An ongoing Covid-19 surge that has so far lasted a month or so has forced Hanoi to move up its coronavirus risk levels two or three times in various areas.

The risk classification is based on a governmental resolution aiming at safe adaptation to the virus and corresponding guidelines from the Ministry of Health. There are three main criteria to determine the coronavirus risk level of a particular area: the percentage of Covid-19 cases among the population, vaccination rate and medical capabilities of health facilities. Based on these, areas are classified into low, medium, high or very high risk areas, deciding restrictions and their stringency.

The government set the criteria as the fourth coronavirus wave was waning, when localities were still undergoing lockdowns and social distancing measures. Localities were encouraged to apply the criteria on their smallest units of governance, like communes and wards. This strategy intended to avoid large-scale lockdowns that could severely impact people’s lives.

But three months after the measure was applied, its cracks began to show. Determining coronavirus risks based on the number of local Covid-19 cases each week forced localities to upend their usual activities practically every seven days, destabilizing daily life for both businesses and citizens.

For example, the threshold between medium and high coronavirus risk is 150 Covid-19 cases for every 100,000 people. In Hanoi, there are several regions hovering around this ratio: Tay Ho, Hai Ba Trung, Hoan Kiem and Dong Da. This means there will be districts where restaurants and cafes are allowed to function normally and others where they aren’t, even though the number of Covid-19 cases in these districts differs very slightly.

The emergence of the Omicron variant means that the pandemic is nowhere near over and cases would continue to rise everywhere. Vietnam is no exception. If we continue to determine coronavirus risks based on existing criteria, there will be more areas forced to close down businesses, affecting people’s lives and going against the spirit of living alongside the virus.

I believe the number of new daily cases should only be a statistical tool to anticipate the disease’s trajectory, not one to adjust risk levels and corresponding responses.

Doctors have proposed using the number of empty ICU beds in localities as a data point to determine coronavirus risks. This indicates that the problem we’re trying to tackle isn’t the number of cases itself, but the number of cases which turn severe.

Vietnam has largely succeeded in vaccinating its population, with around 94 percent having received at least two shots, meaning the vaccination rate criteria can be omitted as well. That leaves medical capabilities as the only variable that matters.

Forcing businesses to close down will bring no benefit to the coronavirus fight in the long run. Instead, it may even harm our economic recovery.

I believe it is time that we do away with all the number crunching and risk classification. Our main goal should be to increase treatment capabilities and ensure that people are able to retain their livelihoods. Let’s get rid of the arbitrary traffic lights and let people carry on with their lives, learning, as our leaders have repeatedly stressed, to live safely with the virus.

*Vu Viet Tuan is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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