Social distancing: the question of essentials

By Tran Anh Tu   April 20, 2020 | 03:34 pm PT
Inconsistency in applying social-distancing rules is weakening the barriers set to protect us from Covid-19.
Tran Anh Tu

Tran Anh Tu

My motorbike broke right in front of a repair shop on a street in Hanoi, but unfortunately, that shop was closed.

Motorbike repair is not on the list of "essential services," meaning those allowed to remain operative during the social distancing campaign, which lasted from April 1 to 15 nationwide and was later extended to April 22 across the capital Hanoi, HCMC and 10 other localities deemed at high risk of Covid-19 infection.

I walked my motorbike home, calling my office to say I would not make it. I’m a reporter and I can’t even tell if my job is "essential" or not.

Many state agencies have suspended operations in the name of "unessential services."

Last week, my friend asked me to help him get a Red Book, a certificate pertaining to land use rights in Vietnam, to prove his family’s ownership of an apartment in My Dinh District. In the process, my friend had already paid over VND30 million (over $1,200).

In contrast to our first visit, the district office was quiet and deserted, the security guard paying us little heed. The only staff member on duty confirmed her colleagues were on break. "It depends on the PM’s decision," she said, in answer to our question as to when they would return.

At another office, we were informed to return once the PM had allowed it to reopen.

The social distancing rule has been applied in varying degree. Stories tell of villages constructing barriers of soil and stone to restrict access, and communes assigning task forces to help regulate traffic.

Hai Phong, a major port city in the north, requested anyone who wanted to exit the city to present a document signed by the chairman of the district where they reside. Ha Long Town, home to famous Ha Long Bay, said it would make public the IDs of those visiting markets more than twice per day and those who fail to wear masks in public. Central Da Nang City now plans to quarantine those arriving from Hanoi and HCMC, the two localities with the highest number of infections, and collect a fee for daily necessities. Thai Binh Province, also in the north, meanwhile, does not allow anyone from a stricken locality to enter.

The definition of "essential services" has many scratching their heads. A noodle vendor would not consider a stall selling sticky rice "essential," and vice versa. A shop repairing computers may not seem "essential" but, with many now working from home, who’s to argue? Many men are also hard-pressed to find a barber, not fully trusting the skills of their partners.

While the above remains open for debate, the Red Book could serve as collateral allowing access to a significant bank loan.

Another friend sold a house before the social distancing campaign kicked off, and can only receive full payment once he officially transferred ownership via the Red Book. However, officials in charge of issuing the document had all taken leave, in accordance with the city order.

The Red Book is an asset many have to save all their life to get. But for state agencies, it simply represents a piece of paper with a red cover and national emblem.

Stores and shops are temporarily shut down 

Shops along a Hanoi street are temporarily shut down, April 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Now is the time the entire nation gets on the same page. But unconditionally accepting all interpretations of social distancing rules and following every administrative order in the name of Covid-19 should not be considered consensus. The population of 90 million are still largely driven by urgent needs, with social distancing weakened by a willing tongue but unwilling heart.

Some would accept a fine when caught without a mask, bow their head when caught escaping quarantine and bear all the rocks thrown at them when failing to provide sufficient health declarations. But if they can secretly break the rules to get what they need, they will.

If I was not a reporter, but some poor manual laborer whose income depends on daily employ, I would do anything to fix my bike and get to work instead of simply making a call and going home.

A leading city in socio-economic development had withdrawn a directive controlling vehicle entry after three days. Another city, praised widely for urban management, failed to collect the planned quarantine fee. Such inconsistency can in no way aid the fight against the epidemic nor stabilize the social psychology.

Besides, it remains unclear if, aside from the Red Book, construction permits, marriage registration, and correction of identity documents fall under "non-essential" services.

My point here is that the diversity of our lives and inconsistency in interpreting social distancing regulations have fueled public concern of the implied benefits.

Lee Chang-Hee, country director of ILO Vietnam, said earlier: "It is no longer just a public health challenge. We need to protect public health, and people’s livelihoods. It is not a choice. If we fail to save people’s livelihoods, we will ultimately fail to protect their life and health against the virus, and vice versa."

What matters most is how state agencies treat the people. Authorities could treat all privately-owned businesses as "non-essential" and temporarily suspended their operations. But they need to consider the reasonable needs of ordinary citizens as "essential."

While the entire nation tries to stand together in this fight, my friend has no choice but to wait for his Red Book while the poor dare not lament the lack of food on their tables.

In the end, the question remains "Why each state agency is allowed to interpret social-distancing rules in its own way?"

*Tran Anh Tu is a journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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