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Vietnam and Asia’s pandemic exit strategy

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In 2020, Vietnam showed developing Asia how to keep the worst of the pandemic at bay and keep the domestic economy humming through a combination of tight border closures and rigorous enforcement of social distancing.

Now, Vietnam has joined many other Asia Pacific countries in becoming a victim of its own success, writes Barnaby Flower in our lead article this week. Because the government’s successes in controlling the spread of COVID-19 left the country ‘with low rates of infection, there was little urgency to procure expensive new vaccines from abroad’.

Policymakers ‘baulked at the cost and the length of the [vaccine] queue and went on record to say it would be better to produce vaccines domestically’. The vaccine rollout has suffered as a result, and now Vietnam is in the grip of its worst outbreak so far, with over 120,000 cases recorded since April in its population of 98 million people.

Vietnam’s crisis is emblematic of the troubles many Asia Pacific pandemic ‘success stories’ are facing in charting a path out of restrictions on civic life, travel and business activity.

Among them are some of the wealthiest and most globally connected countries in the region: South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore and, if we’re being very generous, Japan. This set of countries had relatively benign encounters with COVID-19 in 2020 and, with the exception of Singapore, they now face the threat of the more contagious Delta variant with dismal proportions of their populations vaccinated.

In the context of successful containment, the uncontrolled spread of the virus is as much a policy decision as diabolus ex machina and is thus an authentic object of politicking. Certainly, an ingredient in Vietnam’s earlier remarkable success had been the dominance of a single-party regime and its ability to control public discourse. The success of its hawkish stance on the virus has in turn boosted the prestige of the ruling Communist Party, which by the standards of one-party regimes is relatively attentive to public sentiment.

In democratic or at least more pluralistic settings, governments have had to balance the COVID-19 hawkishness of experts against pressure from business lobbies and fed-up voters. South Korea is struggling with a renewed wave as general elections approach. Japan’s prime minister is on a white-knuckle ride to see whether the Tokyo Olympics will be a super-spreader event or a morale booster ahead of this year’s election.

In Australia, a vocal minority of COVID-19 doves have criticised Canberra’s zero-COVID-19 strategy and the ‘Fortress Australia’ approach that underpins it. Amid the impression of life returning to normal in Europe and North America, Australia can seem like a laggard with its locked borders, on-and-off lockdowns in major cities, and lingering public anxiety about the virus.

That view downplays the social and economic suffering in Europe and the United States that gave vaccination programs there a sense of urgency. It also betrays the Eurocentrism of the Australian commentariat: looking around our own region, Australia’s struggle to chart an exit from restrictions seems less exceptional and more in line with the experience of Asia Pacific countries that also performed well in containing the virus’s spread.

In these countries, the challenge for politicians is to get vaccines onshore and give their people a credible and hopeful path towards safe reopening. Singapore’s government has shown the way on both counts.

In May, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a series of steps towards a ‘new normal’, contingent upon progress in vaccination, in which COVID-19 will be managed like any other endemic infectious disease. His government is in position to promise such a ‘new normal’ because of its foresight in procuring vaccines: Singapore moved quickly and spent big in 2020 to secure adequate supplies, and has now fully vaccinated over 55 per cent of its population.

Businesses and workers in South Korea and Taiwan, where governments didn’t buy their way to the front of the vaccine queue, are still waiting for similar exit plans. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has detailed a four-phase strategy for reopening based upon ambitious vaccination targets, echoing the conclusions of the Grattan Institute think tank, which estimated that 80 per cent of all Australians will need to be vaccinated before borders can be opened without risking overloading hospitals. New Zealand’s government — the world champion of elimination — is coming under pressure to define its COVID-19 endgame.

In the absence of a major outbreaks, governments will have to manufacture public enthusiasm for vaccination. This might involve allowing special travel privileges for those vaccinated, or more unorthodox methods like the Grattan Institute’s proposal of an A$10 million-a-week (US$7.3 million) national lottery for Australians who get a jab.

Politicians also need to be ready to supplement carrots with sticks. With COVID-19 headed for endemic status worldwide, leaders need to be clear with their constituents that once everybody has had reasonable opportunity to organise their vaccination, borders will be unlocked. Get vaccinated, the message should be, or risk serious illness or worse.

But that message rests upon having enough vaccine doses to give to everybody who wants a shot. In Vietnam’s case, ‘with the Delta variant now firmly established, the economy strangled by lockdowns, and the health system approaching capacity, Vietnam needs to prioritise import and distribution of existing vaccines above all else’, writes Flower.

That’s as true of most of Asia’s ‘success stories’ as it is of Vietnam. Until supplies of vaccines match demand, these economies will have to put up with the political and other consequences of the complacency engendered by their success in beating back the pandemic in 2020.

East Asia Forum Editorial Board / The Australian National University – August 2, 2021

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