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What Explains Vietnam’s Current COVID-19 Struggles ?

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Once considered the gold standard for COVID-19 response, Vietnam is now battling rising infections and a glacial vaccine rollout.

Vietnam is in an unusually hard spot right now, with a surge in new COVID-19 cases and the lowest rate of vaccinations in all of Southeast Asia. A few months ago, Vietnam was held up as the gold standard for its COVID-19 response efforts. Vietnam had some of the lowest rates – both cases and deaths – in the world, despite its 1,300-kilometer border with China and flourishing bilateral trade. As a result, despite fears of a greater economic fallout, it was the only economy in all of Southeast Asia that experienced positive economic growth in 2020, albeit a mere 2 percent, a far cry from the 6-7 percent growth it has experienced over the past five years.

Many studies have detailed the reasons for Vietnam’s success, but it is worth highlighting a few. Perhaps the country’s political system, roughly modeled on China’s, gave Vietnamese leaders insights. It was not lost on the Vietnamese Politburo members when their Chinese counterparts held emergency meetings in the middle of Lunar New Year. Vietnamese cyber operations may also have given the leadership added intelligence into the scope of the problem. If nothing else, an ingrained mistrust of China, and an understanding of Beijing’s modus operandi, shaped Hanoi’s response.

Regardless, Hanoi acted with amazing alacrity. The borders were sealed, and quarantines in army camps vigorously imposed. The public information campaigns were catchy and on-message. And the government was able to harness the nationalism of the population, and move to what seemed like a war-time mobilization, complete with the ubiquitous socialist-realism propaganda posters and loudspeakers.

But what really helped in some ways was a very good public health system that focused on prevention, not costly medical cures. Vietnam’s public health system had years of experience in coping with SARS, avian influenzas, and other zoonotic viruses, and public health leadership had put in place effective institutions and procedures, rigorous quarantines, and contact tracing.

The Vietnamese leadership had much to be proud of in their pragmatic, non-politicized response, and clearly gained public legitimacy from their successes.

Today, however, Vietnam is sending text message requests for donations for a vaccine fund, and has a vaccination rate that trails both impoverished Laos and Myanmar, the latter of which is in the midst of mass civil unrest and civil war. At the current rate of vaccinations, Vietnam will not reach heard immunity for a decade.

What caused this reversal? No doubt Vietnam has been a victim of its own success. With such low rates of infection, it simply did not pursue vaccines with any urgency. It did contract for supplies of vaccines, but did so relatively late to the game, and far back in the queue.

With new variants and an economy that was in the midst of re-opening, half of Vietnam’s 8,000 COVID-19 cases – admittedly still a very low figure overall – have come since April. Spurred by these fresh outbreaks, by early June, the government had contracted 31 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine by the end of the year; 38.9 million doses of AstraZeneca from COVAX, plus 30 million in a corporate purchase; and reached a purchase agreement for 50-150 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V. In addition, Vietnam is in talks with Taiwan’s Medigen for 3-10 million doses and with Moderna for an unspecified number of doses.

In all, Vietnam has secured over 170 million doses, enough to achieve herd immunity. It’s just that they will not be delivered until the end of 2021 or early 2022. For this reason, the government has now authorized the Sinopharm vaccine from China, and is now under pressure to begin imports immediately, despite a potential nationalist backlash and the overall suspicion of the Vietnamese public.

Part of Vietnam’s failure to ink deals was its own interest in developing indigenous vaccines. Vietnam currently has four different indigenous vaccines under development: Nanogen, Vabiotech, Polyvac, and the Institute of Vaccines and Medical Biologicals (IVAC). They are behind in phase two and three testing as there were few cases in the country with which to conduct clinical trials, and none of the firms had much experience in doing trials in other countries.

While there was a clear interest in using the pandemic to jump start the biotech sector, a much better course of action would have been having one or two of the pharmaceutical firms license production of one of the mRNA vaccines.

For example, a firm in Thailand owned by the King, with no experience in vaccine production, is producing AstraZeneca’s vaccine, and is already behind in production, affecting not just Thailand, but also Malaysia and the Philippines.  This is a space that Vietnam should have filled, especially as its economy was running effectively when so much of the world was in lockdown.

Vietnam is now trying to fill this space, but it is late to the game. In June 2021, the Ministry of Health reached out to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program about setting up a manufacturing facility in Vietnam in order to franchise different vaccines for local production and for COVAX. And in recent negotiations with Johnson & Johnson, Vietnam not only agreed to purchase the vaccine, but also to license its production.

Putting aside the failure in contracting, the government should be held to account for the fact that to date it has only allocated $630 million of the $1.1 billion needed to secure 150 million doses this year in order to cover 70 percent of its population. Meanwhile, a fund from private and corporate donors had raised some $329 million for the purchase of vaccines.

So is the government to blame? To a degree, yes. At the most basic level, it has been slow to approve vaccines. To date, only three vaccines (AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, and Sinopharm) have been approved by the Vietnamese authorities.

In January the Vietnam Communist Party held its 13th Party Congress, the quinquennial leadership transition. That was followed in May by the election of a new government. Clearly, the new prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh, who unlike many of his predecessors never served as deputy prime minister, has faltered.

In an early June telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, Pham asked for China’s “cooperation and support for Vietnam to obtain COVID vaccines.” Some in Vietnam worry that this will give China additional leverage when it comes to issues like the South China Sea.

And indeed, some people think that is exactly the government’s intention: This will create the space for making painful concessions on the issue of sovereignty that the government knows it’s going to make anyway. It is a way for the government to preempt and shape the anti-Chinese backlash that they know is going to surge online. Anti-Chinese sentiment can morph very quickly into anti-regime sentiment, especially if the public senses that the government has sold out national interests to China.

It does not help that the epicenter of Vietnam’s current outbreak is Bac Giang province, which the prime minister used to head, and which is deeply tied up in the China supply chain. Many critics of the government have long viewed Pham, a former Ministry of Public Security official, as being too close to China.

Vietnam is going to get through this. It had a surprising stumble. But it has an effective government, a decent public health system, and a patriotic population that will rally. Most importantly there is a hunger in Vietnam to develop economically, and not be caught in the middle income trap. Coming out of the pandemic as quickly as possible is the key to that.

But for a regime that has used the pandemic to bolster its legitimacy, this wave and the incompetent vaccine rollout have tarnished its reputation. And with an active netizenry, the government should expect blistering criticism. The government is in the midst of a brutal crackdown against independent journalists and dissidents, but targeting critics on this issue may be the worst reaction to the country’s disappointing vaccine rollout.

Par Zachary Abuza – The Diplomat – June 15, 2021

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