Vietnam’s strong response to COVID-19 offers lessons for the Indo-Pacific

17 Jun 2020
Vietnam’s strong response to COVID-19 offers lessons for the Indo-Pacific
The struggles of many well-resourced Western countries to contain COVID-19 stands in sharp contrast to the experience of Vietnam. Though a smaller developing economy, Vietnam has successfully brought its outbreak under control. This has allowed its economy to return to nearly business-as-usual setting, while others continue to debate how and when to wind back lockdown and social distancing measures.

Vietnam has shown that part of the answer is found in focused leadership, a united community and an effectively-structured health system.

With a population of 96 million, Vietnam has managed to ‘flatten the curve’, recording just 334 total cases and zero deathsFor some experts, Vietnam is considered one of the most successful countries in the world in its response to COVID-19.

Of course, every country’s institutions, demographics and healthcare infrastructure differ; so there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for responding to the virus. Nonetheless, there are some key lessons from Vietnam’s successful response that should inform public health efforts across the Indo-Pacific.

1. Previous experience with a pandemic
In 2003, Vietnam had one of the first cases of SARS, and it was acknowledged at the time for its quick response.  It has been argued that this experience encouraged the Vietnamese government to react quickly to COVID-19, and gave it the confidence take tough initial measures. This included contact tracing, travel limitations, and strict quarantine of affected communities. 

2. Rapid public health reactions
As early as 11 January, when China reported its first death, Vietnam closed its northern border with China, and commenced health checks at airports and border crossings.  Compare this to the US, where the government became aware of China’s issues with the virus in January, but did not begin measures until March.

3. Preparing its health care systemV
Vietnam has a number of risk factors that make it a potential hotspot for respiratory diseases like COVID-19. High rates of cigarette smoking and airborne pollution are both correlates of poor outcomes. Well-before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, Vietnam was already in the process of reforming its health system.  Access to private health has improved significantly, with 90 percent of Vietnamese citizens now insured. The government funded quarantine facilities, including accommodating over 100,000 citizens in military camps, hotels and closely monitored homes. These pre-emptive efforts reduced the treatment burdens for an otherwise weakly-resourced health system.

4. Contact tracing
Vietnam established a taskforce of contact tracers, drawn from both the military and others in the community, to track down as many contacts with an infected person as possible.  The focus on tracing has also led to innovative testing capabilities. Local hospitals and other scientists in Vietnam invented affordable rapid testing kits, which they are now exporting to other countries.

5. Contributing to control efforts in key partners
In an interesting twist given its history, Vietnam has donated masks to the United States. They have also helped Japan, exporting locally-made medical equipment worth $100,000. They have also provided masks to Cambodia, Laos and European countries such as Russia, France, and Italy. Vietnam’s collaborative approach again contrast that of the US, accused of a form of "modern piracy" for diverting a shipment of masks meant for German police.
 
6. Positioning itself as a leader at a critical time in its diplomacy
This year Vietnam is the chair of ASEAN and has an ambitious agenda for 2020 centred on the theme of a “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN.” For the 2020-21 period it is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely been a spoiler for Vietnam’s plans for international and regional leadership. But setting an example during the pandemic adds to its gravitas as a rising power. With its domestic situation under control, its leaders and policymakers can turn their attention back to international and regional challenges.

Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a pioneer territory, but as the pandemic continues to plague many countries, Vietnam offers valuable lessons in how to design effective public health responses.
 

Authors

Kyle Springer
Kyle Springer
Senior Analyst
Kyle Springer is the Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He provides high-level program assistance and develops the think tank and external outreach programs of the Centre. Kyle also directs the Centre's Indonesia programs and convenes policy workshops focussed on Australia-Indonesia relations.
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