How did Vietnam use authoritarianism to contain COVID-19?
Illustration: Samantha Humphreys

With a 1,444 km land border with China and a population of nearly 100 million people, you may be quick to assume that Vietnam would have had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic passes 50,000 deaths, official statistics for COVID-19 show the country has recorded 0 deaths and just under 350 cases. What’s more, for the past two months, they have seen no further local outbreaks. As such, it could be argued that the authoritarian style of governance in Vietnam, coupled with overwhelming public trust in official information, has contributed to the country’s successes in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Authoritarian action

Quick and aggressive action is what set Vietnam apart from most other countries in the world. Learning from the SARS outbreak in 2003, where Vietnam had over 10,000 cases, the government found that early and aggressive action was vital in stopping a repeat like that of previous outbreaks. On 1st February, Vietnam’s government closed the border to China and decided to keep schools closed after the lunar new year break. In contrast, the USA, who will later account for over 25% of world cases of COVID-19, was occupied with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. A deep distrust in the numbers surrounding the developing situation in Wuhan may have pushed the Vietnamese government to act as quickly as it did. Vietnam was the first country the SARS virus spread outside of China in 2003; the government recognised the same warning signs and were right to be hyper-aware of how COVID-19 could quickly spread and overwhelm the nation. 

Vietnam’s governance model is often likened to that of the Chinese system, in that they are both authoritarian socialist states and, since the 1990s, open up to foreign direct investment.  The country has also been rapidly developing. According to the World Bank, more than 45 million people have been lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2018. Although the country has suffered economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, due to its deep integration in the world economy, it is expected to rebound in 2021 and still see a 3-4% rise in GDP – despite a global recession being likely. Vietnam is experiencing rapid social change; currently, 70% of the population is under 35, unemployment rates are low compared to the UK, but the population is ageing fast.

The healthcare infrastructure in Vietnam is weak compared to many developed nations; the government was aware it would not be able to deal with a large outbreak of COVID-19.  Vietnam’s healthcare system, which utilises elements of Eastern and Western medicine, is more idiosyncratic than most Western models of healthcare in the world. Although the health system is improving, particularly in the larger cities, there are only around eight doctors to every 10,000 people in Vietnam in comparison to China’s, 18, and USA’s 26 (WHO). A large outbreak of COVID-19 would have crippled their system. 

Installing effective contact testing and tracing operations was a crucial factor in ensuring their health infrastructure was not overwhelmed. Quarantining not only people with suspected COVID-19, but also anyone they had come into contact with, was a key strategy. As of 29th April, 213,743 tests had been conducted in Vietnam, of which 270 were positive, according to the Health Ministry’s data. The Communist Party enforced a much stricter quarantine policy than many other countries, by opting to isolate people inside military bases rather than within their own homes. 

Western democracies were more reluctant to put such measures in place so quickly, and where it was installed, there was significant push-back. A more aggressive system worked well for Vietnam, but the same tactics would most likely be unsuccessful in other nations. The lack of data protection laws and existing public surveillance systems allowed the authorities to initiate an effective contact tracing system quickly – ideals that simply weren’t possible in many Western democracies. Further, the immediate access to people power allowed Vietnam to set up local testing facilities on the streets of cities; this was crucial in identifying the virus’s breakouts early on. In densely populated cities, testing methods such as this are vital in stopping the spread of infectious diseases. 

As well as testing, the Communist Party of Vietnam put strict rules regarding the distribution of misinformation. Despite its growing and outward-facing economy, Vietnam has done little to address its human rights abuses. The government continues to restrict all fundamental civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the right to freely practice beliefs and religion. It prohibits the formation and operation of any organization or group deemed threatening to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. 

Mobilising nationalism

Fines were issued to those accused of creating “unnecessary panic” by spreading fake news regarding the pandemic on social media. One of the most high-profile cases being that of three teachers that were fined around 10 million Dong (about US$450) for saying, “The outbreak is out of control!”, while posting photographs of Vietnamese patients in a quarantine area. According to the state newspaper, they were not alone; by March, 700 individuals had already been fined. Others have faced time in prison for criticising the state. 

These heavy-handed tactics, however, led to the states messaging to be clear and unchallenged. The Government in Vietnam mobilised nationalism to evoke feelings of community spirit, the term ‘fellow citizenship’ (dong bao) has been used frequently in speeches, media coverage and social media. It is clear people felt a collective responsibility to contain the virus. The government was very open and transparent about the possibility of a pandemic and the reasoning behind such aggressive measures meaning the message of containment was overwhelmingly trusted. 

The openness of key messaging about the disease only led to higher levels of trust between the Vietnamese and their leaders. People in Vietnam were updated about the individual cases of COVID-19 and how they were recovering. Each case was given a unique number; state media reported any changes in the individuals’ condition. The most famous and Vietnam’s most critically ill patient was ‘patient 91’ – a Scottish pilot named Stephen Cameron. He was taken to the hearts of many Vietnamese people. When there was talk of the possibility of a lung transplant, a number of people came forward to offer their lungs. In a country that values community highly, these sorts of updates about critically ill patients lead to a greater feeling of collective responsibility to contain and defeat the virus. 

The public was aware of how important it was that the country did not see a repeat like the SARS outbreak in 2003. Further, people in Vietnam are familiar with infectious diseases; the nation deals with outbreaks of dengue fever every year, so people take public health messaging seriously. While testing and clear messaging played a large part, the government worked well in Vietnam in merging public health messaging with cultural norms. Singing, for example, is a large part of Vietnamese culture. The Health Ministry opted for a music video along with a dance challenge to act as a public service announcement about coronavirus and the importance in washing your hands thoroughly. The dance was so popular it later went viral around the globe and the dance was copied by many on the social media app, TikTok. The catchy hook and strong public hygiene message led it to gaining over 51 million views on YouTube. 

It is important to acknowledge that this is only part of the story for the successes in Vietnam handling the coronavirus pandemic. Vietnam’s success is a story of quick action, nationalism and some creative thinking. While only part of the story, the authoritarian style of governance holds many answers to how the government in Vietnam could act quickly from the outset; this led to a well-heard and robust set of instructions from the government in Vietnam to the people. The lack of questioning around the government’s policies around COVID-19 led to an overwhelming level of trust in government messaging. 

The impact on the economy

The country’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic has surprised many. Of course, there has been some international speculation around the validity of the official numbers. However, there is no evidence to suggest the country has fixed data in any way. Despite the Communist Party’s authoritarian regime benefitting the country during a pandemic, it does not distract from the freedom of expression, opinion, and speech violating human rights in the country. The economy will take a large downturn, particularly in the tourism industry, which accounts for 6% of the country’s GDP. Cities such as Vietnam’s capital Hanoi and other provinces such as Binh Duong rely heavily on tourism, Hanoi seeing five million travellers in the first nine months of 2019 alone. This key pillar to Vietnam’s economy will of course now be close to non-existent due to the global pandemic. 

There is no speculation, however, that the rapidly developing country has only improved its economic prospects for the future, as it is already benefiting from the USA and China’s ongoing trade war. Many companies worried about their reliance on Chinese manufacturers are opting to move operations to new suppliers across the border in Vietnam. Further, being able to reopen the economy sooner and see no further outbreaks have meant Vietnam has been able to control the hit to their economy. Despite witnessing a downturn, the country’s GDP will still grow this year, and people are right to be optimistic about Vietnam’s economic future.

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Further sources:

Number of doctors in Vietnam (WHO): https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.MED.PHYS.ZS?name_desc=true

BBC patient 91 exclusive interview: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53196009

The handwashing song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtulL3oArQw