War metaphors come easy to politicians when tackling outbreaks of infectious diseases.
So when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated this week that fighting the now-global coronavirus outbreak is “like fighting an enemy”, the rhetoric overtly spoke to the need for government-public unity to combat the disease’s spread.
But the implicit message that China’s viral outbreak represents an adversarial threat to Vietnam was no doubt lost on few and likely resonated with many already suspicious of rising integration with the country’s giant northern neighbor.
Hanoi has introduced a temporary ban on all tourist visas for people from the worst affected areas of China, while news reports indicated authorities had shut at least part of the country’s border with China on January 28.
The Ministry of Transport, meanwhile, has requested a suspension of all flights to and from the most infected areas of China. As of January 30, the Wuhan coronavirus, or nCoV, had killed 170 people with over 7,700 people infected worldwide, with most of the cases concentrated in China.
So far there are only two confirmed cases in Vietnam, both in southern Ho Chi Minh City. The first case was of an elderly Chinese man who arrived in Vietnam earlier this month from China’s Wuhan province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
But an open letter written by Vietnamese doctors and published by the The New England Journal of Medicine on January 28 raised concerns that the second case might have been the result of human-to-human transmission.
This is because, the open letter states, the man’s son, who lives in Vietnam, is thought to have contracted the disease after spending several days with his visiting father.
The son has now nearly recovered, said Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Truong Son on January 28, though the father, who is suffering from cancer, is undergoing further treatment.
“This result shows that the Vietnamese health sector is fully capable of detecting and successfully treating [coronavirus] infections,” Son said, according to local media.
As of January 28, Vietnam’s health ministry said that there were a further 64 suspected coronavirus cases in the country, though 25 of them had apparently already tested negative for the virus, according to state media. The rest are currently quarantined. It was not clear how many of the suspected cases are Chinese nationals and how many local.
None of the 17 Vietnamese students in Wuhan city, meanwhile, has been infected, according to a report by the Vietnamese Embassy in China on January 26.
The proximity of China and the importance of Chinese visitors to Vietnam’s booming tourism sector, worth roughly one-fifth of gross domestic product (GDP) last year, means the gathering health crisis could impact heavily on the economy.
The number of Chinese tourists surged by 16.9% year on year in 2019, representing a record high, and now account for just under a third of all visitors to Vietnam, according to official data. The sector now faces weeks, if not months, of dwindling numbers as hard new limitations are imposed on Chinese travelers entering the country.
The coronavirus outbreak coincided with Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, known locally as Tet, one of the busiest weeks for Chinese tourists to visit Vietnam.
The Nikkei Asian Review reported that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Mong Cai, a Vietnamese city on the border, has already fallen by 38% compared to the same time last year. For the entire province, Quang Ninh, visitor numbers fell from 45,000 to 6,700 year on year.
According to Fitch Ratings, a credit rating agency, any long-term slump in the number of Chinese travelers to Vietnam could expose its tourism sector and have a knock-on effect on other dependent sectors.
Whether Vietnam’s bar on Chinese visitors will have a significant impact on Chinese investment into Vietnam is unclear. Foreign direct investment (FDI) reached a 10-year high in 2019, worth US$38 billion, and was driven largely by Chinese firms moving operations south to leverage into Vietnam’s more preferable trade relations with the US and European Union.
But Prime Minister Phuc, who has played a leading and commanding role in the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, has said that his government “accepts economic losses to protect the lives and health of people.”
Hanoi has appeared to be transparent about the situation and has reacted quickly to fast-moving developments. Phuc issued this week a government notice to increase inspection of arrivals, while a national steering committee on the virus was created last weekend.
There also appears to have been competent cooperation between national ministries and regional departments, as well as with provincial People’s Committees and local governments.
Unlike accusations made against China’s state media, Vietnam’s state-run newspapers have also reported openly on the situation. For instance, Nhan Dan, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, published on January 29 two articles about Vietnam’s coronavirus situation, one of which presented the same information as international publications.
But, as in China, Vietnamese citizens have grown wary of government information and reflexively suspect a cover-up of the true situation, leading to the spread of false information about the disease’s spread over social media.
Deputy Prime Minister Dam, who chairs the government’s action committee on the virus, has reportedly ordered authorities to arrest anyone spreading false information online.
Facebook users in Khanh Hoa province, for instance, wrote that infected cases were present in their province, while other users claimed that a 10-year-old child had died in the province because of the virus. Several well-known bloggers and government critics also spread information on social media that has apparently turned out to be false.
One reason may be that the disease and its spread plays into deep-seated distrust of China. Consistent and unfounded conspiracy theories, including that China is trying to poison the Vietnamese by exporting spoiled food, have fed into the fake information now spreading about the coronavirus.
That fear-mongering is already having a xenophobic impact. A number of Vietnamese hotels and guesthouses have reportedly hung signs on their doors saying that Chinese guests are not welcome, while many Vietnamese have gone online to demand the closure of all border crossings with China.
If the government is able to avoid a coronavirus outbreak, both through vigilance and lockdowns, it will certainly win Phuc and his deputies public plaudits.
Phuc’s managerial and competent handling of the situation so far will also put him in good stead as he vies to keep his job for a second term – or possibly even be promoted to Party general secretary – at the next National Congress in early 2021.