A worker, wearing a facemask amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, walks past hoarding at the Formula One Vietnam Grand Prix race track site in Hanoi on March 10, 2020. (Photo by Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is leveraging the Covid-19 crisis to win hearts and minds by touting its quick, effective and uncharacteristically transparent management of the viral outbreak.

While Vietnam’s confirmed cases have risen in recent days, mostly due to tourists arriving from Europe, the new epicenter of the global pandemic, Hanoi’s strict containment measures have conveyed a bunker spirit that has arguably united the communist-run country.

Indeed, Vietnam responded quicker than most Asian nations by shutting down travel to and from China in January, even as the virus outbreak coincided with Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year period when many people travel home to visit family and friends.

On March 9, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc suspended 15-day visa exemptions for tourists from many European nations. A week later, the Foreign Ministry announced a suspension of visas issued at all border crossings, including with China.

Phuc has been keen to convey a bunker mentality, employing war-like symbolism and appealing to Vietnamese notions of nationalism, which resonates with much of the public.

“Every business, every citizen, every residential area must be a fortress to prevent epidemics,” Phuc said in early March.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc makes an address in January 2020. Photo: Twitter

The government’s appeals for solidarity are no doubt aided by the fact that anti-China sentiment informs Vietnamese nationalism. The Party’s forceful measures against a virus that originated from China are thus an easy sell to many Vietnamese.  

For years, conspiracy theories have spread on social media that China intentionally poisons food exports to Vietnam, and many of the same unproven allegations have appeared in social media postings about the coronavirus.  

When the first Covid-19 cases were announced in Hanoi in January, it sparked a brief bout of panic shopping and confusion, said Hai Hong Nguyen, of the University of Queensland.

“However, after concrete actions were undertaken and speeches of the authorities, including business representatives, were delivered in the media, the situation was back to normal and under control,” he said.

Sources say that most Vietnamese are respecting the restrictions imposed on public gatherings, with bars, restaurants and other public places ordered to close in major cities until the end of the month.

The Transport Ministry said this week that it will hand out free face-masks to those without, after the government ordered all people in crowded places must wear protective masks.

The government has also earmarked US$1.1 billion for a stimulus package to help businesses stay afloat during the crisis.  

According to Hanoi, “phase one” of containment, stopping the spread of infected people from China, has been successful. “Phase two,” stopping the spread from Europe, has apparently been less effective.

A worker prepares to disinfect a Vietnam Airlines plane amid Covid-19 concerns at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, March 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Vietnam has confirmed 76 cases of the virus, ten of which were discovered on March 18, after authorities announced a surge of infections from overseas. There have been no reported Covid-19 related deaths in the country.

“So far the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus is functioning well, and the government is anticipating how to mitigate the impact of Covid-19,” said Hai Hong Nguyen, honorary researcher at Centre for Policy Futures at Australia’s University of Queensland.

In many ways, Vietnam’s Communist Party has done the opposite of its Chinese socialist cousin, which tried to cover up news of the outbreak when it first broke and has has since silenced voices who have criticized Beijing’s response.

Hanoi, analysts say, has learned from its past mistakes in crisis-management. In 2016, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese-invested steel plant, sparked unprecedented nationwide protests after it spilled tons of toxic waste off the coast of central Vietnam.

The government reacted by covering up the disaster’s scale and arresting protest leaders before coming clean weeks later after images on social media showed the extent of the destruction of marine life and waterways across several provinces.

Some analysts called it Vietnam’s “Chernobyl” moment, referring to the Soviet Union’s mishandling of the nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, one reason for the communist system’s downfall five years later.   

Keen to avoid a repeat of the Formosa crisis, Prime Minister Phuc “has been proactive in taking action,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“He has established a task force to oversee national, provincial and local levels. The government has gone into overdrive with an information campaign to advise citizens what actions they should take to retard the spread of the virus.”

A Vietnamese man wears a face mask at a pagoda in Hanoi, January 30, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Nhac Nguyen

Thayer added: “The military, which enjoys huge respect and trust by Vietnamese society, has been mobilized to assist with public health measures [through] medical specialists and the provision of quarantine facilities.” 

Deputy prime ministers give public addresses on the nation’s Covid-19 situation at least once every two days, while heads of relevant departments hold regular press conferences broadcast on state-run television to update the public on government actions.  

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who heads the government’s steering committee managing the pandemic, is now hailed on social media as something of “a national hero,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

The public have also been appreciative of the efforts of Nguyen Duc Chung, the Hanoi city chairman, who has been front-and-center in the government’s responses and who is widely “seen as fit for the job,” he added.

“Although the government sees it as essential to control information related to its performance, the central government and especially the Hanoi municipal government has injected an unusual dose of transparency in recent weeks,” said Vuving.

While there is skepticism about the official number of cases, the Ministry of Health has been active in announcing new infections and providing sanitation guidance, said Michael Tatarski, a journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City.

The global health community agrees. Kidong Park, the Hanoi-based representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), has praised the government’s “proactiveness and consistency throughout the response.”

There are no elections in Vietnam’s authoritarian one-party state, but in recent years the Party has endeavored to be more receptive and responsive to public complaints.

For example, Phuc said on March 13 that foreigners who receive coronavirus treatment would need to pay for medical services, a reaction to online commentators complaining about foreign nationals, including from wealthier European states, who receive free treatment at local taxpayers’ expense.

Most confirmed Covid-19 in Vietnam, official data shows, have been foreign nationals mostly from Britain.

Arriving passengers walk past a health quarantine sign at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on January 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Hoang An

The Communist Party has also effectively spun the public narrative to its political advantage, analysts say.  

The Ministry of Information and Communication regularly dispatches weekly guidance reports to state-run media on what should and should not be reported. Some suggest that there are now almost daily updates to monitor media output on the Covid-19 crisis.

But unlike China’s Communist Party-run tabloids, Vietnam’s state-run newspapers have focused more on accurate reporting than defensive propaganda. Indeed, there have been notably few self-laudatory editorials and rarely has the Party taken credit for winning the battle against the outbreak.

One government source who requested anonymity said that there is high-level concern that if the Party’s propaganda is seen as too self-congratulatory and suddenly there is a spike in confirmed cases, as some fear may be imminent, then it would hit the government’s credibility and lose the public’s trust.

At the moment, the Party’s propaganda speaks of “quiet determinism, not jubilant success,” the source said.    

The government has also capitalized on a perceived human and even humorous touch after its “Ghen Co Vy” hand-washing song, a comical public health-promoting video, went viral over global social media.

A more cynical view, however, is that lack of foreign journalists in the country means most of the reporting has come from state-run outlets, which unswervingly abide by and parrot the Party’s line.

Nhan Dan, the Party’s main outlet, and even the more liberal Tuoi Tre have focused on how democratic Western countries have responded to the virus crisis, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that Vietnam’s management has been superior due to its usual strong state intervention.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a souvenir shop in Hanoi on February 26, 2020, amid concerns of the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

In January, authorities warned that stiff punishments would be doled out to anyone who shared false information on social media after reportedly fake news spread about unreported coronavirus infections.

Arrests have reportedly been made for either posting false information on social media or criticizing the government’s handling of the outbreak. Prominent human rights and pro-democracy activists say they are now being monitored even more than usual.

“In the case of the coronavirus, Vietnam’s one-party state also uses ‘rule by law’ to threaten legal action against purveyors of fake news,” said Thayer.

There have also been reports of vigilantes enforcing quarantine restrictions, though Vietnamese social media users have been more critical of those who flout the rules rather than the government. Whether that’s a function of the Party’s well-established information operations over social media is not altogether clear.   

The virus outbreak overshadowed the Party’s 90th anniversary on February 9, yet the government’s response to the crisis has arguably enhanced its legitimacy, many analysts say.    

Indeed, apparatachiks’ performance in managing the outbreak could decide who rises and falls at next year’s scheduled National Congress, where top leadership positions and policy directions will be determined, says academic Vuving.

“Some [officials] who demonstrate good leadership skills during this outbreak will have a big chance to move up, while some who show bad leadership qualities are likely to get down or out,” he said.

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