What the UK can learn from Vietnam’s response to coronavirus

This is a tale of two wildly different responses to a pandemic. As a foreigner in Vietnam during the COVID-19 crisis, I feel so grateful and relieved to be here instead of in Europe. I try to show my appreciation by demonstrating to the locals that I am not an irresponsible “spreader” and that I take the danger very seriously. I have stopped all socializing, I always wear my mask outside and I strictly stay more than 2 metres away from others when I do have to leave my home.

A street in central Hanoi is mostly empty on the first day of social distancing.
A street in central Hanoi is mostly empty on the first day of social distancing.

Each morning, from the safety of my Hanoi apartment, I watch the news from the UK to see how much devastation the virus has inflicted on the country. I watch with a mixture of emotions; sadness, worry for my family, and anger that it has been allowed spread so freely. The UK government allowed it to spread despite seeing the tragic situations in China and Italy and despite warnings from the WHO. People around the world were shocked when they heard about the UK strategy of “herd immunity” and saw the pictures of the crowded mass events that were somehow still taking place or the packed pubs and clubs full of reckless and unconcerned drinkers. This was all happening at the same time as desperate Italian doctors were mourning the deaths of their colleagues and begging the people of the UK to stay home.

As I follow the debate and recriminations, I see people pointing out certain countries as examples of how the UK could have handled things better. The same countries and territories are always mentioned, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan (China) and Hong Kong (China). These are the countries and territories that learned from the SARS and MERS outbreaks. They immediately recognized the potential threat posed by COVID-19 and began to prepare as soon as the story first broke. The situation is far from over in these countries and territories but they’ve been able to prevent a lot of the potential damage through mass surveillance, aggressive contact tracing, early social distancing, widespread temperature checks and the near universal use of face masks.

For some reason there seems to always be one country missing when the praise is dished out and I don’t understand why. Of course I am talking about Vietnam. Despite sharing a border with China and having a population of 95 million people, Vietnam has somehow managed to limit COVID-19 to only 251 cases and 0 deaths. It is such a remarkable statistic that people often don’t believe me when I tell them about it. When I hear people defending the British government’s slow response and arguing that no one else could have done any better I feel compelled to tell them about how amazingly well Vietnam has dealt with it in comparison.

Back in January at the end of my holiday in Danang I received a message from my boss telling me that my English classes would be cancelled because of the new coronavirus in China. I couldn’t believe it and thought it was a paranoid overreaction. I was frustrated because I would be losing my income. Now, 2 months later, as the world’s economy is on its knees and healthcare systems creak under pressure, I realize just how wrong I was. I cringe when I think back to the messages I sent trying to persuade my boss to put the classes back on.

Now I know how misguided I was and how right the actions of the Vietnamese authorities were. Through taking such early action in closing schools, restricting flights and eventually stopping new arrivals from abroad, through foresight, clear leadership and the people’s willingness to follow the guidelines, we have so far been spared the horrors we are seeing elsewhere. By prioritizing the safety of its people over short term economic growth, Vietnam’s leaders have done us all a great service.

The difference between the Vietnamese and the British responses is stark. In Vietnam testing is widely available for anyone who needs it, in the UK only severe cases are being tested, most people with symptoms are simply told to stay home. Many frontline health workers are self-isolating at home because they or a family member had symptoms. They want to return to work but they can’t because they are unable to get tested and don’t want to risk endangering patients.

Nowhere is this difference in approach more apparent than the Vietnamese quarantine centres where over 50,000 people were housed at one point. Everyone entering the country is tested and required to stay in one for 14 days whether or not they tested positive. Such a feat is almost unthinkable in the UK. Not only because of the impressive logistics and political willpower involved but also because people tend to strongly resist any interference with their personal freedoms even if it is for the sake of the greater good of society. The positive results of Vietnam’s cautionary approach are now clear. I shudder to think how many cases there would now be if they hadn’t been so proactive. I am deeply grateful to all the doctors, nurses, police officers, translators, cleaners and others who are working so hard and risking their own safety to keep the country safe.

In February when I first told my family about the unfolding COVID-19 situation in Vietnam they were worried about me and suggested I fly back to the UK in order to be safer. Ironically, it is now me who is worried about them. Vietnam is currently one of the safest countries in the world while the UK is one of the worst affected. I am lucky to be in what feels like a safe haven but at the same time feel desperately worried about my parents every time I imagine them risking infection having to go a crowded supermarket to buy food. I try to convince them to wear masks but unfortunately it’s still considered strange and unnecessary there. This isn’t helped by the official advice that they are not needed for the general population. I believe the real reason is that there is a mask shortage and the limited supply is needed for healthcare workers.

There is so much the UK can learn from Vietnam’s response. From the Vietnamese government; the willingness to pay attention, prepare for the worst and take early and decisive action. But they can also learn from the attitude of the Vietnamese people who have accepted the need to temporarily adjust their behaviour. They know that although it is difficult and inconvenient to have your work or education stopped, your wedding postponed, or your freedom to socialize curtailed, these measures are necessary because we have a duty to protect our fellow citizens. Most Vietnamese people seem to accept the need for some personal sacrifice for the good of all. In the UK, the government was so worried people would refuse to make these sacrifices and so reluctant to disturb business that they left it too late to stop the spread of the virus until it was too late. This crisis can teach us that there is nothing more important than human life. We should remember that a dead economy can be nursed back to life, but a dead person cannot.

By Cormac Loftus, a UK citizen currently living Hanoi.