A Vietnamese is tested for Covid-19 after a second outbreak in the country. Image: Facebook

DA NANG – Vietnam has become the epicenter for a second deadly outbreak of Covid-19, with new cases originating from the tourist hot spot of Da Nang. The country recorded a mere 1,044 coronavirus cases with 34 fatalities as of September 2. 

Social distancing measures and 15-day self-isolation began on July 28 in Da Nang and will remain in place for the immediate future. Presently, only essential services such as pharmacies, hospitals and supermarkets are open. 

All entry and exit points into Da Nang have been closed, streets have emptied and the popular My Khe beach cordoned off. Most local businesses have had to close their doors for a second time as Covid-19 threatens to derail the domestic economy.

While this viral second wave has come as a shock after the disease’s initial containment, many locals and expatriates still commend the Vietnamese government’s response to the pandemic. 

Vietnamese authorities took an aggressive approach to the viral outbreak from the start. Since Vietnam shut its international borders back in March, medical authorities have tested community members for free. 

The Ministry of Health regularly sends text message updates to phone users, and the country has created a contact-tracing app for the public called Blue Zone

A foreigner being tested for Covid-19 in Son Tra District, Da Nang, August 2020. Photo: Hugh Bohane

None of this has been an easy feat, considering that Vietnam is densely populated with over 97 million people and a relatively poor country that isn’t widely equipped with modern medical facilities to cope with a pandemic. 

Yet authorities have implemented comprehensive containment methods, including mask-wearing requirements, public health campaigns encouraging frequent hand-washing and extensive contact tracing of up to third-tier contacts.

The Vietnamese government has suitably deployed a war narrative of propaganda when campaigning to defeat Covid-19. The messaging has cleverly hit on an existing strong sense of national pride.

Vietnam’s Covid-19 figures are extremely low by global standards, particularly considering the country shares a land border with China, from where the virus originated. 

It is yet to be officially confirmed as to how this second outbreak erupted, however suspicion has fallen on the 40 Chinese nationals who were illegally smuggled into the country several months ago in April. 

On August 29, a Chinese man and two Vietnamese women in Da Nang were sentenced to five to eight years in prison for brokering some of these illegal entries into the country.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Vietnam made a crucial decision to stop all flights from China, Macau and Hong Kong in order to combat the initial spread of Covid-19 from Wuhan, China, the pandemic’s original epicenter.

It was one of the first countries to take this vital step. On the same day, it also shut its 1,300-kilometer land border with China, which is known to be porous in many areas.

It is no secret that Vietnam views China as an age-old adversary given China’s multiple historical invasions and subsequent bloody wars over the centuries.

This factor alone would have undoubtedly played a role in Vietnam moving quickly to protect itself from a China-borne disease by shutting its borders early.

Da Nang’s iconic My Khe beach cordoned off during a Covid-19 lockdown, August 2020. Photo: Hugh Bohane

In March, Vietnam suspended all other international flights into the country. Since then there have only been a few special repatriation flights allowed to operate for Vietnamese citizens returning from abroad.

Those returnees have been immediately tested, quarantined or hospitalized if they were thought to be infected. It is plausible that mistakes may have occurred in medical testing or from people leaving quarantine too early.

Vietnam’s state media has pointed to another theory that the virus has since mysteriously mutated into a more deadly strain. But there is still no official scientific evidence that is the cause of the latest viral wave.

Local authorities are now conducting Covid-19 tests on the entire population of Da Nang, a city with over 1.1 million people including 2,200 foreigners

Medical testing has accelerated since the second outbreak began on July 25 with 5,000 residents tested in a single day in the high-risk zone of Son Tra District.

Asia Times spoke to Russian national Kati Zakharova, who was stuck in a high-risk zone in the Ngu Hanh Son District and unable to leave her barricaded street for two weeks due to at least one case being detected there. 

Consequently, she had to take a mandatory antibody blood and PCR swab test.

“On the first day when I realized I have to stay home, not like others with a free opportunity of going out just sometimes, I was really shocked,” said Zakharova.

Meanwhile, local residents and a small group of expats living in Da Nang have been co-operating with local volunteers to donate food and deliver it to checkpoints to help locals in need. 

Mike Harris, is a UK citizen heading up one volunteer group along with local journalist Nguyen Van Quoc Hoang, are making this event a weekly occurrence.

Vietnam’s 2015 MasterChef, Tuyet Pham, is also leading a volunteer team through her Nu Du restaurant – along with a handful of Da Nang-based foreign chefs – where they prepare meals for emergency workers, doctors and nurses in quarantine. 

Foreigners waiting to be tested in Son Tra District, Da Nang, August 2020. Photo: Hugh Bohane

In the long-term, experts remain optimistic that Vietnam’s economy will be able to bounce back from this second outbreak. Kenneth Atkinson is the founder of the international accounting firm Grant Thornton and a dual citizen of both the UK and Vietnam. 

He is also currently the vice-president of the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) in Vietnam.

“This latest outbreak means that of course there will be more reluctance to open the borders and that’s going to be the biggest challenge,” said Atkinson. “That’s what we really need in terms of getting the tourism and hospitality sector back on track, even though I don’t think we are going to see pre-Covid numbers until well into 2022 or beyond.”

“One of the things we were hoping for was domestic tourism would pump a little bit of light into the tourism and hospitality sector and that’s of course been turned on its head now and we’ve seen a reluctance to travel even into places that haven’t been affected.”

“I think it is too early to say but already one of the advisory committees to the prime minister have already come out and said this could throw us into negative growth from the current projections of the 2-4 % GDP growth.”

Atkinson and others are hopeful that with the recent EU-Vietnam free trade agreement coming into force, there will be an emphasis on foreign investment and a number of European companies will set up manufacturing operations in Vietnam.

Other companies will be moving their manufacturing away from China due to the ongoing US-China trade war. 

A Covid-19-emptied street in Ngu Hanh Son District, Da Nang, August 2020. Photo: Hugh Bohane

In the meantime, Da Nang’s residents have reasons to be hopeful that this lockdown period may soon end.

In recent days, the neighboring province of Quang Nam, which includes the nearby ancient city of Hoi An, were informed by Vietnamese authorities that some lockdown restrictions, though not all, will be eased. 

Moreover, the Deputy Minister for Health and his delegation recently returned to Hanoi after a three-week stay and stated that the Covid-19 situation in both Da Nang and Quang Nam is reportedly “under control.” 

Local authorities have even allowed construction workers to resume working again on building sites in Da Nang, one sign that the city is slowly but surely already returning to normal. 

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