Dang Thanh Hang, a 27-year-old nail salon owner in Ho Chi Minh City, sighed as she recounted her sudden reversal of fortune as Covid-19 rages in Vietnam’s largest city.
“I’m bankrupt now. All the money my mom and I had accumulated over the past years has disappeared,” she said.
Hang, who hails from Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, had spent all her savings to open her shop. She and her four friends rented a storefront on a street in District 7 in Ho Chi Minh City in April before the fourth coronavirus wave broke out in Vietnam on April 27.
The country had successfully contained all coronavirus outbreaks until that point, with only a handful of brief, localized lockdowns interrupting the nation’s normalcy in the past year.
The Delta variant, however, penetrated the nation’s strict border closures before beginning its rapid spread in southern Vietnam in May.
All non-essential services were shuttered in Ho Chi Minh City on May 31, but the new social distancing measures failed to stop the spread.
The government banned almost all people from leaving their homes on August 20, with the military tasked with delivering food to households.
Despite strict virus prevention protocols nationwide, Vietnam recorded nearly 11,500 new Covid-19 cases on September 12, bringing the total tally to 613,375 with 1279 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
While some restrictions have been eased in recent days, the seven-day average daily death toll remains at nearly 300 cases. Those who have died of Covid-19 make up about 2.5% of all those infected with the coronavirus, higher than the world’s mortality rate of 0.4%, due to poverty and overcrowding of the health care system
As of September 11, Vietnam had administered a single Covid-19 vaccine dose to more than 27 million people, out of a total population of 98 million. With nearly 4,7 % of the population fully vaccinated, Vietnam has one of the lowest immunization rates in Asia, if not worldwide.
Today, business owners such as Hang have few options as state officials begin to acknowledge that the virus is in Vietnam to stay.
“I can’t afford the rental anymore, so I have recently returned the premises and have rented a small room to temporarily live through the day,” said Hang, who estimates her losses to be around US$4,000.
According to a survey by the state-run Private Economic Development Research Board in conjunction with the VnExpress news site carried out from August 12-22, nearly 70% of more than 21,000 businesses surveyed have permanently closed, mostly due to broken supply chains.
The rest reported struggling to stay afloat, with many expected not to survive into next year if the situation does not improve.
Major General Vu Quoc Binh, a medical doctor and former director of the Vietnam Military Medical Department, said that recent missteps by authorities have led to a “perplexing” situation. Overconfidence caused by the nation’s initial success in containing the pandemic, he added, had created complacency.
“At first we thought we were number one in the battle against the epidemic, but in the end, Vietnam understood that it was wrong,” he said, adding that it had been a mistake to allow large crowds to gather prior to the current outbreak.
“At that time, the number of Covid infections in Vietnam was very small while the world was infected a lot, leading to subjective psychology, allowing large crowded gatherings to take place,” he said, adding that the government did not prioritize vaccination when case numbers were still low.
“Instead of focusing on vaccines, we mainly focused on social distancing,” he said, referring to the state’s contingency plans prior to the ongoing outbreak, adding that the state “thought it had better lessons than other countries” due to its victories against Covid-19 in the pandemic’s first year.
Vietnamese authorities have abruptly reversed its “zero Covid” strategy in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh acknowledging on August 28 that “we cannot control it completely and we must adapt and have suitable ways to respond to the situation.”
Three days later, Chinh reiterated the new approach, stating that Vietnam “cannot resort to quarantine and lockdown measures forever,” citing the harm to livelihoods.
Binh said that while social distancing should continue in some form, the current approach was too radical.
“Apply social distancing in an extreme way in some localities will have a very bad effect on the economy,” he said.
The World Bank last month reduced its projected annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth for Vietnam by two percentage points to 4.8%.
The economy grew at a robust pace prior to the current outbreak, having grown by 5.64% in the first six months of 2016.
Dr Tuan Nguyen, professor of predictive medicine at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, said that the public health situation in Vietnam was not unlike that in his adoptive home, which had also led the world in low case numbers prior to the emergence of the Delta variant.
“I think the [Vietnamese] government has to accept reality, and reality is that the virus will stay with us forever, just like many other viruses over the years,” he said.
“For every case that is identified through testing there are probably 6-7 cases that are not yet identified. So, the number of cases reported every day in the media does not mean much,” he added.
Tuan agreed that vaccination is the key to curbing the spread of Covid-19, adding that the health care system must be reinforced with anti-coronavirus medicines such as Remdesivir and Molnupiravir. The sudden spike in deaths, he added, was partially attributable to inadequate medical supplies.
“When the outbreak was at its peak, there was a serious shortage of ICU beds and oxygen supplies in public hospitals. Some effective drugs were not widely available in hospitals, limiting the capacity of treatment of severe patients,” said Tuan.
“Given what happened immediately after the latest outbreak, it seems that the government was not well prepared for such a surge in Covid-19 cases,” he added.
In addition to bolstering the vaccine supply, Major General Binh said the country ought to increase testing capacity and continue with its present strategy known as the “5Ks” in Vietnamese: face masks, disinfection, distance, no gatherings, and health declarations.
People with mild cases, he added, should not necessarily be admitted into hospitals, citing the risks of nosocomial infections and cross-transmissions of viruses.
But some social distancing measures, such as the issuance of permits to use the roads, have proven counterproductive, he said.
“They have to gather at the place where the road permit is issued, and then when they are on the road, they are stopped for inspection, increasing the risk of disease transmission,” he said, adding that vaccination should be the top priority.
“Vaccines must be focused on as the first priority solution, and all measures and forms of social distancing are necessary, but not the number one priority, but the number two,” said Binh.
Vietnam’s GDP is expected to expand by about 4.8% in 2021, although it has posted a robust economic performance in the first half of this year, according to the World Bank’s report released on August 24.
This forecast, two percentage points lower than the projection made by the World Bank Group in December 2020, accounts for the negative economic impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 wave.
“Vietnam’s economic growth will still be positive this year but it will be lower than 4%, instead of 4.7% like the World Bank’s forecast because the World Bank’s data was collected before July 20 before the fourth wave of Covid-19 outbreaks break out through the country,” said Le Dang Doanh, a retired senior economic adviser to five Vietnamese prime ministers.
“Many production and export activities have already been negatively affected by the lockdown, and a range of activities such as transportation and even domestic purchases have been restricted,” he added.
For Hang, the nail salon owner in Ho Chi Minh City, any shift in policy now will have come too late. As she spends her days under lockdown in the small room she moved into after her shop closed, she contemplates what she will do when moving around on the streets is allowed again.
All she is sure of is that she will have to give up her life in the city and start over again back in Can Tho.
“Now I can only wait until Ho Chi Minh City lifts the blockade, then I will go back to my hometown to live, because I don’t know what to do here,” she said.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘failure’ to describe the way the economy is being managed, but we can see that we have not been successful due to shortcomings and weaknesses in recent times,” said Doanh.