​Pandemic 101: the chaos over what is 'essential'

August 3, 2021 | 04:07 pm PT
Dang Hung Vo Former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment
On the first day of social distancing in Hanoi, my computer gave up, letting out one final whirr before gazing at me with an empty, black screen.

For the past few months I have been working from home, attending meetings online with my trusty old computer. The land law project discussions with the Central Economic Commission required me to attend several meetings in a single day with different groups of people.

The computer simply could not handle all that and gave up on me, smoke billowing from it.

I froze for a moment, not knowing what to do: The social distancing order was still in place, and I needed a computer for other meetings the next morning.

With no other choice left, I decided to brave it. Armed to the teeth with masks and hand sanitizers, I went out hoping I could find a computer shop still open somewhere.

The silence was almost palpable on Le Thanh Nghi Street near my home. No shop was open, and every time I tried to make a phone call to a place I knew, they replied that computers were not classified as "essential goods."

My options were running out.

Desperate, I looked up on my mobile phone to find a solution. But what hit me were the photos of hundreds and thousands of people lining up on the road to get back home, families resting on the sidewalks and motorbikes hauling stacks of personal belongings. They were trying to enter Long An to return home to various Mekong Delta localities, but authorities were forcing them to go back to where they came from.

The southeastern key economic region, which is supposed to spearhead Vietnam's growth, employs large numbers of workers from all over the country. The pandemic put an end to that, leaving them with no job prospects in the cities and forcing them to return to their hometowns. But the way back home has not been easy: social distancing means no public transport, and not all localities allow people to return.

The staggering aspect is the difference in the way various areas apply social distancing measures. Some warmly provide people guidance on how to navigate their way amid the pandemic, while others have taken hardline stances and fine anyone who dares go out.

While I appreciate the kindness some police officers and other authorities have shown in helping people during these trying times, kindness alone cannot resolve the mess created by the varying definitions of "essential" and the differing ways in which localities interpret what social distancing measures look like.

Everyone is braced, waiting for the storm to blow over. The poor lean on one another for support, while businesses try their best to remain afloat.

A few days ago, some Covid-19 checkpoints decided that sanitary pads and diapers were not "essential" enough. Money in the bank? Not that "essential." Even beef? "Yes."

How long will we continue to have these conversations? Who gets to decide on what is essential and what is not? These questions will likely go down in history as one of those fun facts about the worst pandemic to hit humanity in the 21st century, I believe.

Womens sanitary products are seen on the shelves inside a supermarket in Mexico City, Mexico February 16, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Carlos Jasso.

Women's sanitary products seen at a supermarket in Mexico City, Mexico, in February 2021. Photo by Reuters/Carlos Jasso.

Localities have failed to comprehend that stopping the coronavirus alone is not enough; people's lives also need to carry on as "normally" as could be.

The directives that told people not to go out "unless absolutely necessary" or determined which products are "essential" have failed to specify exactly what they are. It creates discrepancies regarding how to interpret them, and people suffer as a result.

When each locality interprets such directives in its own way, it only causes chaos. From what I have seen, this only blocks the flow of goods and creates new crowds of people, which goes against every coronavirus control measure. After all, a society is only as good as those who run it.

Back to my busted computer. I thankfully remembered how one of my students was always resourceful at such things, and made a call. Two hours later he appeared at my doorstep with a brand new monitor and all the tools I could ever need.

"How did you get here so fast when it's so hard to go out?" I asked.

"What do you think are the most 'essential' things these days?" he asked back with a grin. "But anyway, never mind."

My computer came back from the dead. I breathed a sigh of relief, but somewhere in my head the images of people who have nowhere to go amid this social crisis were still floating around, clouding my mind.

Vietnamese laws say directives are only meant to direct people to do something, but do not entail legal repercussions for not complying. So where did all those fines come from? Why are officials still enforcing their will over the populace? What gives them the right to distort ‘directives’ to suit their own needs?

I applaud the localities that have issued documents spelling out what "essential goods" are and the like. But that alone isn't enough as the problem persists on a large scale. The confusion and disorganization in legal interpretations in different areas will only add to the pain people have had to face from the pandemic.

Just recently, the Ministry of Industry and Trade said it has drafted a list of "inessential goods" rather than "essential" products.

I hope when that list comes out, localities stop imposing their own definitions of "essential goods" on the public.

*Dang Hung Vo is a former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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