Community Cases Rise in HCMC

Part of the plan, or a bad sign?

Good morning! Welcome to all new readers, and a big thank you to returning subscribers. It’s been another tough week - in a lengthening string of tough weeks - for Vietnam.

If you’re reading this through a shared link and would like to sign up, or if you’d like to upgrade to a paid subscription (US$5/month), you can do so below. On Wednesday I sent out a piece for paying subscribers on the broader economic and business impacts of the outbreak.

I also have a new piece out for Southeast Asia Globe looking at the environmental and policy realities behind the recent LNG for energy hype in Vietnam.

On to the news.

Data update

At the start of the week, 270,986 infections had been detected in this outbreak, 166,717 of which were active - those numbers are now 308,560 and 185,405. Just staggering considering Vietnam had under 4,000 less than four months ago. Yesterday saw a new 24-hour case record of 10,639, the first time the daily infection total passed 10,000.

While new infections in Ho Chi Minh City remain well below the late July figures, the curve is not moving down. Tay Ninh, Can Tho, Khanh Khoa, Da Nang, Dong Thap, Tien Giang, Long An and Dong Nai all recorded triple-digit infections yesterday, while Binh Duong hit 3,255.

The daily death rate remains high, with the overall toll climbing from 5,774 to 7,150 since Sunday - 380 were added yesterday, including 307 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Thousands of patients continue to be discharged each day, but that figure is generally less than half the number of daily new infections, while there are 660 ICU cases.

On the vaccination front, according to VnExpress, 14 million people, 14.5% of the population, have received a shot (12.5% partially vaccinated and 1.5% fully inoculated). The vaccination rate has slowed down actually, with fewer than 700,000 people nationwide injected each of the last five days, following a couple of days when over 1 million doses were administered. This is largely down to the ongoing lack of supply - I’m not aware of any new shipments arriving this week.

One piece of good news is that HCMC has administered at least one shot to 71.4% of adults, a goal that had been set for end of this month. Now we will see how (and when) the rollout of second doses happens.

Strange times in Ho Chi Minh City

This has been a rather confounding week of news here in the city. A few days ago, we learned that the number of new cases within the general community was overtaking infections in quarantine or sealed-off areas.

Throughout this outbreak, the opposite has always been the case, and seemed to be a way for officials to tell us that most infections weren’t out in the open.

Specifically, 72.5% of Tuesday’s 3,540 new cases in the city were in the community, and 11 districts in particular were seeing large shifts in where infections are being found.

This shift became even more pronounced by Wednesday, when 99% of the day’s cases in Tan Binh were in the community, and 97% of District 10’s were among the community - and those are just two examples.

As this was happening, the municipal Department of Public Security announced that about 1 million people and 120,000 vehicles are on the city’s streets every day. These numbers have increased substantially this week since inter-district deliveries were allowed again starting Monday, and the following businesses were allowed to resume some operations: “food establishments that produce bread, rice vermicelli, and tofu, notary services, air ticket offices, private clinics, and companies that offer security service, as well as maintenance and repair works for buildings and apartment complexes.”

Local media outlets have published numerous photo essay this week showing busy streets, something that usually draws a government reaction, though it’s now clear that traffic is concentrated because many side streets are blocked off, while at least 200,000 people per day are out to get vaccinated and many individuals are still moving around for work.

Initially, no explanation was given for the increase in community cases (VnExpress even said in this article that the city chairman did not give a reason).

Starting yesterday, however, health officials said that this had all been planned, as starting on the 15th, the testing focus shifted to general neighborhoods, instead of sealed-off zones. This is part of the effort to detect infections early so that they can be cleared and more ‘green zones’ can be created as we move towards the September 15 ‘under control’ target.

If this shift was predicted, I don’t know why we weren’t warned in advance, as the initial reports of this happening were quite alarming. Some health experts, meanwhile, have questioned whether this is really the case, arguing instead that poor social distancing compliance is behind the spike in community infections.

(I’d also like to point out this Zing article, in Vietnamese, in which a doctor says the only solution at this point is martial law.)

Whether this data reversal was expected or not, these figures prove again just how widespread the Delta variant is in the city, and that municipal leadership waited far too long to begin seriously addressing this.

It’s certainly good that more cases are being detected so that transmission chains can be cut off, but there are just so many points of transmission. One also must wonder why a change in testing strategy is only taking place now, at the end of the sixth week of the city’s hard lockdown.

As the outbreak continues to rage, the human cost just becomes more bleak. This is something I covered on Monday, particularly in regards to the hundreds of people who attempted to leave the city before the lockdown extension.

City officials responded by promising support, but the needs are immense, with many people out of work and completely out of money. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor says that 1.3 million workers have been impacted by this outbreak, though that has to be a very conservative figure.

HCMC, on top of its own ongoing relief packages, has now asked for US$1.2 billion from the central government to help cover food and rent for the poor, and especially migrant workers.

Perhaps most dramatically, it was announced that the central government will dip in to the national food reserve to help provide 130,000 tons of rice to feed 8.6 million people facing food shortages in 24 cities and provinces, mostly in the south, though the need is estimated at over 216,000 tons.

I’ve certainly never seen anything like this in the 10+ years I’ve lived in Vietnam, and I think it’s fairly to safe to say this is the biggest crisis to face the country since the 1990s - though feel free to tell me otherwise.

People are desperate for food while much-needed produce is stuck in the Mekong Delta due to travel restrictions, and the region’s inland port volume is down 4.8% compared to this time last year, accounting for 24 million tons of goods.

And in HCMC, even some people with money and mobility are being stopped and fined while attempting to go to the pharmacy or supermarket.

Beyond HCMC

I’ve focused a lot on HCMC above, but that’s not the only problem area. There are desperate migrants in Hanoi as well, though case numbers there remain rather encouraging as the city enters another phase of mass testing.

Dong Nai plans to test 2.1 million residents amid a major infection surge that has seen cases increase 25 times over the last month.

And around 400 out of over 2,000 people who returned to Ninh Thuan Province, on the south-central coast, from Dong Nai at the end of July have tested positive for Covid.

I had intended to get into some more vaccine details today, but this is already quite long, so hopefully there’s space on Monday.


Extra links:

Liberal laws and fetus cemeteries: Vietnam’s conflicted abortion stance (Southeast Asia Globe)

On the Other Side of the Window: a Peek into Different Worlds (Urbanist Hanoi)

Decoding the Language of Vietnamese Modernist Architecture (Saigoneer)

Have a safe weekend!

Mike Tatarski