Ngoc Ha is furious. Someone has erected an additional layer of barricades outside her central Hanoi home, on top of the one erected by local authorities a few days ago. The double barrier prevents access to her residential ward, which has a dozen households.
No one dares to pass through it because everyone knows that just a few hundred metres away is a checkpoint where young volunteers zealously stop passers-by and demand to see their travel permits. Those who do not have it face a two million dong ($90) fine.
As a result, the self-built barricade of cardboard, old wooden planks, and sheets of corrugated plastic sits undisturbed in the pouring September rain, an ominous reminder of Hanoi’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Ha considers herself fortunate to be able to work from home. Hundreds of others in her area who need to go to work must obtain the difficult-to-obtain passes and then trickle through the checkpoint every morning, clustering before the barrier and risking cross-infection.
Hanoi has been divided into color-coded “zones.” People can move freely in “green zones” where there are no known COVID cases, but everything is restricted in “red zones” with COVID cases, such as the one where Ha lives. She can only go grocery shopping three times a week, and her neighbourhood has devolved into a prison camp.
The normally mild-mannered 50-year-old mother of two is almost yelling at the ward leader: “What if there is a fire?” Or is it an emergency? Are you expecting people to get off a stretcher and jump over the barricade?”
She is not alone in her dissatisfaction with how the government is handling the pandemic.
Hanoi is experiencing a new coronavirus outbreak, with dozens of new cases reported every day. SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in 3,700 people in Vietnam’s capital since the end of April. The total number for the country has now surpassed 500,000, with the largest hub, Ho Chi Minh City, accounting for half of the total. The death toll has risen to 13,000, up from zero a year ago.
Vaccination is moving at a glacial pace, owing primarily to a scarcity of vaccines. As of September 9, only 3.9 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated.
The presence of the highly contagious Delta variant in this new, fourth wave of COVID is especially concerning. It has also revealed the system’s overall lack of preparedness in dealing with one of the most serious public health disasters in modern history.
“After the initial outbreaks [last year], we became too complacent,” said a veteran doctor in Ho Chi Minh City who asked to remain anonymous in order to avoid getting in trouble with authorities. “This time, too, the government believed it would be simple to contain the virus. We had an entire year but made no preparations in terms of medical resources or vaccine procurement.”
“It really demonstrates that the government has no appropriate understanding of the virus or the pandemic,” he added.
As a result, policies issued by the government at all levels are often late, inadequate, and confusing. It is not uncommon for a directive to be issued late in the afternoon only to be withdrawn that night. Or orders that are half-baked and leave people perplexed.
Explaining some of the recent policy errors, Hanoi Chairman Chu Ngoc Anh stated that the situation is “new and unprecedented,” but that “we listen to criticism and adjust.”
On August 30, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh appeared to have signalled that Vietnam is ready to shift away from the outdated “Zero COVID” strategy and toward a new, more appropriate approach. “We should be aware that this battle against COVID will be a long one, and we will have to coexist with the pandemic because total containment is impossible,” he said at a high-level government meeting.
After ten days, there is still no evidence to support Chinh’s “living with COVID” policy.
Authorities are still tracking and tracing positive cases across the country, and mass testing is being conducted in hotspots to “extract F0s from society,” as the official language for confirmed COVID cases is.
Contact tracing and isolation – the measures that helped Vietnam keep the virus at bay last year – are still very much alive and well. However, they have now resulted in widespread public dissatisfaction.
A video clip sent to the RFA Vietnamese Service shows a man being restrained by uniformed police and forced into a car to be taken away because he refused to take a COVID test in Ca Mau city. The man writhes violently and screams, “You’re breaking my arm!” Have I committed a robbery or a murder to be treated this way?”
In another video, residents of Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Tan district are seen protesting an attempt to blockade the entire residential ward because there are allegedly around one hundred F0 cases inside. “Do you want to kill all of us here?” a man is heard saying.
In a more extreme case, the local government in Thanh Hoa province’s Hoang Hoa district decided to imprison an entire village of 400 people for 14 days simply because some of them had contact with those who had contact with suspected positive cases.
According to a veteran doctor in Ho Chi Minh City, strict containment measures that “show no respect for citizens” are still in place.
Luu Binh Nhuong, a member of the Vietnamese parliament, was quoted in the domestic media as saying that the authorities “should not use COVID prevention as an excuse to violate laws and the constitution.”This is not acceptable to the general public.”
Nhuong urged authorities to direct resources toward improving people’s welfare and assisting those in need as a result of COVID. Residents have been complaining about a lack of food and essential services as a result of lockdowns in many areas. However, even in government-run quarantine and treatment facilities, the distribution of supplies has been problematic, to say the least.
Hundreds of Covid patients fight for food in shocking images from a makeshift hospital in Binh Duong province, near Ho Chi Minh City. The hospital, one of the largest of its kind in Vietnam, was built after mainstream hospitals became overcrowded, and it has also been plagued by power and water shortages.
For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the military was brought into Ho Chi Minh City two weeks ago to assist the city’s quarantined residents. Soldiers and police officers have aided in the delivery of supplies as well as the enforcement of stay-at-home orders. According to analysts, troop deployment was a wise decision because the army has a high level of credibility and trust in a country that has been through numerous wars. The presence of army uniforms and guns on the streets, on the other hand, may indicate that the authorities are aware of the growing public discontent.
In Vietnam, unrest is extremely rare, and the government takes great pride in preserving political and social stability. However, as the number of Covid cases begins to decline, albeit slowly, the need to care for those whose livelihoods have been shattered by the pandemic grows.
“At night, on empty street corners, under bridges, or outside hospital gates, homeless people who look many times worse than before have reappeared. At dusk and dawn, we can find ‘guerrilla’ squatting markets where both sellers and buyers move quietly and quickly, “writes Pham Gia Hien, a well-known columnist for the popular VnExpress news portal, about what he sees these days in Hanoi.