Vietnam spins virus crisis to win hearts and minds
21 mars 2020
Ruling Communist Party has earned local and foreign plaudits for its firm if not heavy-handed Covid-19 containment measures
Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is leveraging the Covid-19 crisis to
win hearts and minds by touting its quick, effective and
uncharacteristically transparent management of the viral outbreak.
While Vietnam’s confirmed cases have risen in recent days, mostly due
to tourists arriving from Europe, the new epicenter of the global
pandemic, Hanoi’s strict containment measures have conveyed a bunker
spirit that has arguably united the communist-run country.
Indeed, Vietnam responded quicker than most Asian nations by shutting
down travel to and from China in January, even as the virus outbreak
coincided with Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year period when many
people travel home to visit family and friends.
March 9, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc suspended 15-day visa
exemptions for tourists from many European nations. A week later, the
Foreign Ministry announced a suspension of visas issued at all border
crossings, including with China.
Phuc has been keen to convey a bunker mentality, employing war-like
symbolism and appealing to Vietnamese notions of nationalism, which
resonates with much of the public.
“Every business, every citizen, every residential area must be a fortress to prevent epidemics,” Phuc said in early March.
The government’s appeals for solidarity are no doubt aided by the
fact that anti-China sentiment informs Vietnamese nationalism. The
Party’s forceful measures against a virus that originated from China are
thus an easy sell to many Vietnamese.
For years, conspiracy theories have spread on social media that China
intentionally poisons food exports to Vietnam, and many of the same
unproven allegations have appeared in social media postings about the
When the first Covid-19 cases were announced in Hanoi in January, it
sparked a brief bout of panic shopping and confusion, said Hai Hong
Nguyen, of the University of Queensland.
“However, after concrete actions were undertaken and speeches of the
authorities, including business representatives, were delivered in the
media, the situation was back to normal and under control,” he said.
Sources say that most Vietnamese are respecting the restrictions
imposed on public gatherings, with bars, restaurants and other public
places ordered to close in major cities until the end of the month.
The Transport Ministry said this week that it will hand out free
face-masks to those without, after the government ordered all people in
crowded places must wear protective masks.
The government has also earmarked US$1.1 billion for a stimulus package to help businesses stay afloat during the crisis.
According to Hanoi, “phase one” of containment, stopping the spread
of infected people from China, has been successful. “Phase two,”
stopping the spread from Europe, has apparently been less effective.
Vietnam has confirmed 76 cases of the virus, ten of which were
discovered on March 18, after authorities announced a surge of
infections from overseas. There have been no reported Covid-19 related
deaths in the country.
“So far the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus is functioning
well, and the government is anticipating how to mitigate the impact of
Covid-19,” said Hai Hong Nguyen, honorary researcher at Centre for
Policy Futures at Australia’s University of Queensland.
In many ways, Vietnam’s Communist Party has done the opposite of its
Chinese socialist cousin, which tried to cover up news of the outbreak
when it first broke and has has since silenced voices who have
criticized Beijing’s response.
Hanoi, analysts say, has learned from its past mistakes in
crisis-management. In 2016, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese-invested
steel plant, sparked unprecedented nationwide protests after it spilled
tons of toxic waste off the coast of central Vietnam.
The government reacted by covering up the disaster’s scale and
arresting protest leaders before coming clean weeks later after images
on social media showed the extent of the destruction of marine life and
waterways across several provinces.
Some analysts called it Vietnam’s “Chernobyl” moment, referring to
the Soviet Union’s mishandling of the nuclear power plant disaster in
1986, one reason for the communist system’s downfall five years
Keen to avoid a repeat of the Formosa crisis, Prime Minister Phuc
“has been proactive in taking action,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam
expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in
“He has established a task force to oversee national, provincial and
local levels. The government has gone into overdrive with an information
campaign to advise citizens what actions they should take to retard the
spread of the virus.”
Thayer added: “The military, which enjoys huge respect and trust by
Vietnamese society, has been mobilized to assist with public health
measures [through] medical specialists and the provision of quarantine
Deputy prime ministers give public addresses on the nation’s Covid-19
situation at least once every two days, while heads of relevant
departments hold regular press conferences broadcast on state-run
television to update the public on government actions.
Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who heads the government’s steering
committee managing the pandemic, is now hailed on social media as
something of “a national hero,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the
Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
The public have also been appreciative of the efforts of Nguyen Duc
Chung, the Hanoi city chairman, who has been front-and-center in the
government’s responses and who is widely “seen as fit for the job,” he
“Although the government sees it as essential to control information
related to its performance, the central government and especially the
Hanoi municipal government has injected an unusual dose of transparency
in recent weeks,” said Vuving.
While there is skepticism about the official number of cases, the
Ministry of Health has been active in announcing new infections and
providing sanitation guidance, said Michael Tatarski, a journalist based
in Ho Chi Minh City.
The global health community agrees. Kidong Park, the Hanoi-based
representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), has praised the
government’s “proactiveness and consistency throughout the response.”
There are no elections in Vietnam’s authoritarian one-party state,
but in recent years the Party has endeavored to be more receptive and
responsive to public complaints.
For example, Phuc said on March 13 that foreigners who receive
coronavirus treatment would need to pay for medical services, a reaction
to online commentators complaining about foreign nationals, including
from wealthier European states, who receive free treatment at local
Most confirmed Covid-19 in Vietnam, official data shows, have been foreign nationals mostly from Britain.
In January, authorities warned that stiff punishments would be doled out to anyone who shared false information on social media after reportedly fake news spread about unreported coronavirus infections.
Arrests have reportedly been made for either posting false
information on social media or criticizing the government’s handling of
the outbreak. Prominent human rights and pro-democracy activists say
they are now being monitored even more than usual.
“In the case of the coronavirus, Vietnam’s one-party state also uses
‘rule by law’ to threaten legal action against purveyors of fake news,”
There have also been reports of vigilantes enforcing quarantine
restrictions, though Vietnamese social media users have been more
critical of those who flout the rules rather than the government.
Whether that’s a function of the Party’s well-established information
operations over social media is not altogether clear.
The virus outbreak overshadowed the Party’s 90th anniversary on
February 9, yet the government’s response to the crisis has arguably
enhanced its legitimacy, many analysts say.
Indeed, apparatachiks’ performance in managing the outbreak could
decide who rises and falls at next year’s scheduled National Congress,
where top leadership positions and policy directions will be determined,
says academic Vuving.
“Some [officials] who demonstrate good leadership skills during this
outbreak will have a big chance to move up, while some who show bad
leadership qualities are likely to get down or out,” he said.