A Vietnamese Covid-19 propaganda poster with the message: ‘To stay at home is to love your country.' Photo: Facebook

More Americans have died from Covid-19 than were killed during the Vietnam War, a grim milestone coinciding with Hanoi officially reporting zero deaths from the coronavirus.

“Fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy,” the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has declared.

As of Wednesday (April 29), at least 58,365 Americans have died from the virus, according to a Johns Hopkins University-run tracker of cases and deaths worldwide.

At least 58,220 Americans were killed in the 16-year Vietnam War, starting with two American advisors in 1959 and ending in 1975 when US forces retreated in defeat from communist forces.

The former battlefield adversaries’ current Covid-19 tolls would be proportionately equal if America’s 58,365 deaths among its 329 million population were matched by 17,166 fatalities among Vietnam’s 97 million citizens.

But Vietnam recorded zero coronavirus deaths as of Tuesday (April 28), the government’s National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control said.

The country has confirmed a minuscule 270 coronavirus cases nationwide, despite sharing a border with China, the initial viral epicenter of the pandemic.

Vietnam’s actual toll could be higher because of the relatively low number of 88,000 coronavirus tests conducted, but it still likely has one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world.

A woman wearing face mask carries a bag of free rice at the St. Joseph’s cathedral in the old quarters of Hanoi on April 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Nhac Nguyen

“Our team up in Hanoi is working very, very closely with their Ministry of Health counterparts,” said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s representative in Thailand, John MacArthur.

“The communications I’ve had with my Vietnam team is that at this point in time, [they] don’t have any indication that those numbers are false,” MacArthur said, according to US National Public Radio.

Despite America’s position and resources as a superpower, compared with Vietnam’s status as a developing nation, Washington did not move as fast as Hanoi in responding to Covid-19’s potential threat in the beginning, losing valuable time which no doubt contributed to the high US death toll.

The US also did not coordinate the information in their health and safety messages to the public, or blanket the country with broadcasts, print media, street posters and other ubiquitous warnings and reminders which Hanoi did on a scale reflecting its mass mobilization efforts during the war.

Hanoi’s impressive twin successes – both against America during the war and now in containing the spread of Covid-19 – have been achieved by commanding citizens to act, manipulating media and controlling public and private enterprises.

The Communist Party’s tight hold on then-North Vietnam, and on today’s united Vietnam, have enabled Hanoi to respond with comparatively limited resources.

On April 23, some offices, shops, restaurants, hotels, tourist sites, sports venues and other places in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere, reopened for the first time since scattered lockdowns began on April 1.

The government relaxed the nationwide lockdown because no new infections were reported since April 16, a success which continued on Tuesday (April 28).

A propaganda poster on preventing the spread of Covid-19 along a street in Hanoi on April 29,2020. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

High-risk places such as beauty parlors, festivals, zoos and other businesses where people easily mingle, remain shut. The provinces of Bac Ninh and Ha Giang and some neighborhoods in the capital Hanoi also remained under partial lockdown.

“We need to learn to adapt to live with the pandemic,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced.

“We must not let it destroy our economy or our country. We need to put our people’s lives first and continue to take drastic measures to control the disease.”

The government’s new “live together safely” strategy allows people to work, but they must maintain social distancing, frequently wash their hands, and submit to health checks when traveling between provinces.

International flights remain curbed but some air travel and public transport within Vietnam is beginning again. Schools are scheduled to restart soon.

“Passengers are requested to refrain from talking and eating, and wear face masks on public vehicles,” the Vietnam Government Portal’s news reported.

The US however responded with a patchwork of lockdowns with varying restrictions, with some states and major cities relatively unaffected by mandatory controls while other states and large cities implemented strict stay-at-home orders.

Those uneven responses also began on different days, allowing the coronavirus to spread from locations that eventually did lockdown and infect places which remained open.

US President Donald Trump has sent erratic messages during the Covid-19 crisis in America Photo: AFP

Vietnam’s strategy and staff also benefitted from lessons learned from dealing with previous China-borne and cross-border diseases such as SARS, bird flu, and swine flu.   

Vietnam’s timeline reveals its winning strategy. On January 16, the Heath Ministry alerted government officials on how to stem an expected virus outbreak.

The ministry told hundreds of Vietnam’s hospitals and clinics on January 21 to start preparing for cases.

Hanoi confirmed its first cases on January 23, when doctors treated two Chinese citizens who had traveled around the country after flying in from Wuhan on January 13.

A National Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention was established on January 30 when the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the virus was a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

Early in February, Hanoi began warning the public and created an informational website in the Internet-savvy country.

Selective lockdowns cleared Hanoi’s crowded streets and some other cities and villages, while allowing people to shop for food and essentials.

Police issued fines for not wearing a mask in public, threatened imprisonment if a maskless person infected anyone, and banned gatherings of 20 or more people.

A Vietnamese policeman wearing a protective face mask in Hanoi on February 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Hanoi began quarantining villages in February whenever they reported Covid-19 cases. Teams went door-to-door in neighborhoods suspected of having infections.

WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Director Takeshi Kasai said last week, “They’re really doing their part,” by quarantining about 80,000 people. “I think that’s the reason why they were able to continue to keep the number [of infections] small.”

Tens of thousands of people, including visitors and citizens arriving from abroad, were quarantined in guarded dormitory camps dotted throughout Vietnam. Soldiers left breakfast, lunch and dinner outside each room.

Vietnam quickly stopped flights and overland travel in the first week of March to and from China, which shares a border with northern Vietnam.

By March, officials were also monitoring incoming international passengers, and banned all foreign entries after March 22, except for Vietnamese citizens returning home and other individuals, who all had to undergo a two-week quarantine.

When Hanoi’s prestigious Bach Mai Hospital and, in Ho Chi Minh City, the Buddha Bar, were identified as clusters of infection, a widespread lockdown was declared on April 1.

Hanoi’s success contrasted with Washington’s fumbling comes on the 45th anniversary of America’s defeat in Vietnam, displaying again the impressive, unexpected strength of the small Southeast Asian nation which still suffers deep war scars but no Covid-19 deaths.  

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.