A health worker holds a blood sample taken to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a testing center in Hanoi on July 30, 2020. Photo: AFP / Nhac Nguyen

Vietnam’s Covid-19 success story was almost too good to be true.

Before last weekend, Vietnam had gone 100 days without recording a single locally-transmitted Covid-19 infection, earned the mantle of the largest country without a single fatality from the virus, and its economy was an oddity in the world for reopening to near pre-coronavirus levels.   

But as a second wave of infections spreads across the country, with cases confirmed as far apart as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City this week, that success story could quickly turn into a cautionary tale on the risks of reopening too fast and too broad.  

Before the recent outbreak, the country of 95 million had earned international praise for keeping the number of confirmed cases at just 450 with zero deaths.

The latest wave is believed to have originated in the coastal city of Danang, which saw locals flock to its beaches and attractions last weekend to take advantage of discounts given by Hanoi to revive the beleaguered domestic tourism industry.

After patients were confirmed to have Covid-19 at five hospitals across Danang, it appears the virus spread from there throughout the country. As of July 29, confirmed cases have been recorded in Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and several smaller cities in between.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has urged citizens to remain as vigilant as they were in March and April during the peak of shutdowns and confinement, and has warned that this wave could be much worse than the first.

Passengers queue up for check-in at the departure terminal in Danang International Airport on July 27, 2020. Photo: AFP

Vietnam is widely seen as a Covid-19 combating role model. Hanoi reacted much quicker than most other Southeast Asian states by closing its borders to China, its northern neighbor, in January and suspending schools that same month.

As a communist state, the government’s ever-present snooping on its citizens proved useful for contact tracing while the authorities have also invested well in medical technology, including locally-made and inexpensive testing equipment.

Vietnam’s local administrations also appear to have successfully learned from each other’s experience.

At the weekend, Danang’s local authorities repeated many of the same measures that Hanoi’s local government enforced when the country’s 17th case was confirmed on March 6, noted Phuong Pham, a master’s candidate at School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London.

Social distancing rules were introduced within hours, hospitals and hotels were sterilized and all travel into the city was slowed and monitored. An estimated 80,000 tourists and visitors who had been taking advantage of discounted deals in Danang were quickly bussed or flown out of the beach town.

A city-wide lockdown has also been ordered, while other cities have rushed to respond. From midnight on July 29, all large gatherings will be canceled and bars shut in Hanoi, while it is again compulsory to wear face masks in workplaces and eateries in the capital.

“We have to act now and act fast,” Nguyen Duc Chung, the chairman of the Hanoi’s administration,” was quoted saying in a statement.  

Most Vietnamese remain confident that the government can handle the latest outbreak, said Pham. Indeed, the communist regime’s popularity has soared during the pandemic with an approval rating of 95% in June, the highest in the world, according to a poll by London-based research data and analytics group YouGov.

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

But that doesn’t mean the Vietnamese people aren’t deeply concerned about the recent outbreak, Pham added. In Danang, just hours after the 416th case was first reported at the weekend, masks sold out, while “other cities, despite not having the same degree of concern like Danang, still worry about whether the government can tackle the virus as well as it did.”

Some experts fear that this wave could be much worse than the one that began in March, chiefly because this time it has spread quickly throughout the country, whereas past outbreaks were localized.

Others say that Vietnamese became somewhat complacent after three months without an infection, and stopped taking all the necessary safety precautions and traveled to congested places like Danang’s beaches. 

In this respect, Vietnam isn’t alone in being one of the apparent miracles of the pandemic to have suddenly suffered a new wave of cases. South Korea and Australia have also seen case numbers spike this week after apparently having their outbreaks under control.

As the largest country in the world without a confirmed Covid-19 fatality, Vietnam has not only considerably improved its international image but has also allowed Hanoi to re-open the economy to almost pre-pandemic levels.

“While recurrence remains an ever-present threat, Vietnam’s government is now turning its attention to repairing a damaged economy,” said a report by McKinsey, a US-based management consultancy, from earlier this month. “The country was among the first to lift virtually all domestic containment measures,” the International Monetary Fund noted in June.

A resident wearing a face mask fills a paper bag with free rice amid Vietnam’s nationwide social isolation effort as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Hanoi, April 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

The latest forecasts – made before the Danang outbreak – suggested that Vietnam’s economy would grow by just 2.7% this year, down from 7% last year, according to the IMF. While potentially the lowest growth rate seen in the country in almost two decades, Vietnam will still be one of few Asian nations to boast positive economic growth for 2020.

It remains to be seen how the latest outbreak will impact economic recovery. According to local media reports, Vietnamese travelers in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands have already canceled their vacations within the country.

Other reports suggest that consumers are already avoiding indoor cafes, restaurants and bars, and businesses across the country are asking any employee who has recently been near Danang to self-isolate. 

But, as the IMF noted last month, Prime Minister Phuc “prioritized health above economic concerns” when the pandemic first spread from China. Health above profit is likely to be the thinking again this time around.