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The domestic politics of Vietnam’s coronavirus fight

The particularities of domestic politics in Vietnam have led to surprisingly effective pandemic responses from the government and its people.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc all over the world, Vietnam remains one of the few bright spots, alongside some other Asia-Pacific countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand. Despite being a neighbor of China — the initial hotspot of COVID-19 — and having its first cases appear in late January, as of April 24, Vietnam has only 270 confirmed cases, 225 of which have been declared recovered, with zero deaths recorded. 

After a full week of no new reported patients, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc decided to end his Directive No. 16 on the enforcement of social distancing over the whole country. 

In comparison with Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand, all of which have been widely praised for their responses while facing the deadly pandemic, Vietnam can be considered at a disadvantage with a smaller economy, a larger population, and a long and somewhat porous border with China. Only last year, Vietnam was ranked 50th out of 195 countries in terms of its preparedness for epidemics and pandemics by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, much lower than South Korea (9) New Zealand (35), or even countries still dealing with hundreds of thousands of active cases like the United States (1), France (11), or Italy (31). 

Numerous explanations have been offered to explain Vietnam’s performance in its fight against coronavirus, including the strategy of aggressive tracing and surveillance of potential cases thanks to the strong communist apparatus existing at every level of the society; the alertness maintained by the government, which has never downplayed COVID-19 as “just another flu”; a tradition of heightened nationalism in difficult times; or even the collectivist culture of the Vietnamese society that comes from its long Confucian traditions. Such generalizations, however, overlook some features of domestic politics in Vietnam, which have contributed to the relatively good performance of the country against the virus.

Lessons from the Past

One astounding fact that has been rarely mentioned by both domestic and foreign outlets while analyzing Vietnam’s strategy for confronting the pandemic is that the Vietnamese government has been without a head of the Health Ministry since November 2019, when then-Minister of Health Dr. Nguyen Thi Kim Tien retired without any designated successor. Since that time, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam – a telecommunication engineer by training — has been tasked with managing the ministry while the minister spot has remained vacant, and probably will be until the pandemic is put under control. 

However, the Ministry of Health and its network of centers of disease control and prevention all over the country, despite their patchy leadership and limited resources, have proven to be instrumental in the government’s effort to contain COVID-19. This feat comes from the many lessons Vietnam learned during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003 and later the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic in 2009. But the smooth operation of the country’s public health strategy against the pandemic is also the fruit of the efforts of Dr. Tien – a renowned epidemiologist – and her colleagues in building up Vietnam’s disease prevention capacity during her two tenures as minister of health and previously as the president of the Pasteur Institute in Ho Chi Minh City. Had Tien not been able to create such a robust preventive system before leaving her post, Vietnam would have had to face many more challenges in dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

A competent Ministry of Health alone, however, is not enough to control the situation, as the government as a whole has to act swiftly and efficiently in mobilizing all available resources for the costly campaign against COVID-19. In addition, the central and local governments must also be transparent in communicating with the public in order to gain much-needed trust during the enforcement of quarantines and social distancing. 

The Vietnamese government learned this lesson the hard way during the 2016 marine life disaster, when pollution caused by Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa’s steel plant in Ha Tinh province brought devastating consequences for the maritime environment in the central part of Vietnam. Facing this disaster, which was dubbed “the most serious environmental disaster Vietnam has ever faced” by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc himself, the responses from the central and especially the local governments were criticized as slow, reactive, and often nontransparent, thus leading to street protests in various cities – a rare sight in the country – and later the disciplining and firing of various senior officials both at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the local government of Ha Tinh, who were ruled negligent in their jobs.

Elected to lead the government in the midst of this debacle, Prime Minister Phuc surely understood that, no matter how extensive his security apparatus, his order to enforce social distancing over the whole country and related measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic would only be as good as the trust the public places in him and his officials. Also, different from China, where the internet and social networks are heavily monitored and regulated, Vietnamese netizens enjoy relatively more cyber freedom, with more than 70 percent of the population having access to the internet, 58 million accounts on Facebook, and 62 million on Google, both of which are banned in China. Given such levels of internet and social network penetration in Vietnamese society, it would be unwise to try to hide the actual situation of the pandemic from the people instead of being upfront and proactive like Phuc has been for the past three months. 

By quickly establishing strict measures like social distancing and border closures to counter the spread of the virus, while also proposing several stimulus packages to lessen the financial burden for Vietnamese people and businesses, and even reaching out to other countries affected by COVID-19, Phuc has met with strong approval from the Vietnamese public. Vietnam’s people appear to be among the most confident globally in how their government has handled the pandemic – an almost unthinkable situation four years ago during the Formosa crisis.

Pressures From the Future

Avoiding another public relations disaster is not the only reason Phuc wants his government to succeed in keeping COVID-19 at bay. The outcomes of his measures during this pandemic will be essential for him during the race to the top position of the Communist Party after its 13th Congress in early 2021. Although very popular thanks to his anti-corruption campaign, the incumbent General Secretary of the Party and President of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong is already 76 and suffered from a stroke last year. Senior Party members attending the next Congress will thus have to vote for his successor to the most powerful position of the Vietnamese political system. To compete with other potential candidates — like Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan or Executive Party Secretary Tran Quoc Vuong — normally Phuc would rely on his government’s records in economic development and foreign affairs, both of which had been in very comfortable conditions before the COVID-19 outbreak. Even during the early phase of the fight against coronavirus, the prime minister still repeated the message that despite the unwelcome arrival of COVID-19, Vietnam should strive to maintain the planned growth rate and other economic indicators in 2020. 

But now, as a global recession is almost certain, and the negative impacts of the strict measures that his government has put in place for social distancing on the domestic economy appear to be unavoidable, Phuc’s tasks for his officials have been switched to controlling the pandemic at all costs and minimizing its impacts on the economy and society. For example, the government has pooled all available resources and expertise from hospitals across Vietnam to carry out life-saving measures for the three most serious cases of COVID-19 patients; the progress (or lack thereof) of these patients has been communicated daily with the public. Clearly, Phuc has realized that, in the absence of any optimistic scenario for economic growth this year, only a strong performance by the government during and after the pandemic can boost his chances at the Party Congress next year. The surprising victory of President Moon Jae-in’s party at the recent election in South Korea, and the increasing approval ratings of leaders with impressive records during the pandemic like Canada’s Justin Trudeau or New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, must also underscore for Phuc the benefits of maintaining what he has been able to build so far in handling COVID-19.

Similar to the prime minister, who has become the face of the fight against COVID-19, other senior officials in both the central and local governments of the provinces affected by the virus have also felt the pressure of the coming Party Congress. Poor records during this crucial period may result in them not being re-elected or promoted during the usual reshuffle post-Congress. In fact, local governments have been trying to outdo each other in enforcing the social distancing order from Phuc, to the point that the government and the Ministry of Health had to warn some provinces against excessive measures like blocking all traffic and people to and from affected cities, or using security forces against simple violations of the social distancing order. 

In the capital, Hanoi, which has been the city with the most cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam, the local government has even criticized the Ministry of Health for being not thorough enough with the prevention system at its hospital; the Bach Mai Hospital has been the most serious pandemic hotspot in the country. Deciding to take the matter into his own hands, Nguyen Duc Chung – chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi and the former head of the Hanoi police forces — ordered a quarantine on the Bach Mai Hospital so strict that the leaders of the Ministry of Health and the hospital had to plead for some relief measures from Chung for the wellbeing of the doctors, nurses, and patients. For such proactive policies since the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the local government under Chung has received praise from both the central government and the press. That’s a much-needed boost for the Hanoi mayor given the fact that several senior officials under his supervision have been investigated and prosecuted for corruption charges, whereas former Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai, who was promoted to the position of Party secretary of Hanoi at around same time with Chung, was also removed from this position earlier this year also for negligence in economic governance. Here, it seems that the aforementioned anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Party chief Trong has another side effect: making officials like Chung do their best in this hard time to salvage their reputation and survive possible corruption charges, at least until the next Congress.

Given Vietnam’s relative success in containing the virus, despite its large population and close connection with some heavily-affected countries like China or South Korea, it is reasonable for other nations currently struggling with high infection and mortality rates of the deadly virus to learn from Vietnam and replicate its prevention measures. At the same time, however, they should also understand the particularities of domestic politics in Vietnam that have led to such surprisingly effective responses from the government and its people against the pandemic. At the end of the day, long-term and adequate preparedness, the accountability of senior officials at both central and local levels, and transparency in communicating strict and often difficult measures like social distancing and quarantine will always be of paramount importance to the fight against coronavirus, or any infectious disease in the future. 

By Viet Phuong Nguyen – The Diplomat – April 24, 2020

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