Confusion Reigns in Ho Chi Minh City
A very dangerous weekend
Good morning! This newsletter is bit late as I accidentally sent it to paying subscribers, and didn’t realize that until I woke up. Tough to start with an upbeat welcome (you’ll see why), but thank you for reading the Vietnam Weekly, and feel free to share it with your friends. Getting clear information has been particularly difficult in the last few days, and I hope this helps somewhat.
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On to the news.
On Thursday night, this outbreak had accounted for 308,560 COVID-19 cases since April 27, a number that is now 343,973. On Thursday, the one-day national case total passed 10,000 for the first time, and then 11,000 on Saturday, a three-day string of records that barely ended yesterday (11,346 cases). Thousands of patients are recovering each day, including 12,756 on Friday - the first time that figure has surpassed new cases.
Binh Duong is now generally logging more daily cases than Ho Chi Minh City and is preparing plans for 100,000 infections.
The death toll has risen from 7,150 to 8,277, with Ho Chi Minh City reporting 599 deaths over the weekend.
According to the Ministry of Health’s vaccine portal, vaccinations have fairly remained flat, ranging from 30,000-400,000 injections per day, since last Tuesday. 13.5 million people are now partially vaccinated, and 1.8 million are fully vaccinated - meaning 15.9% of the population has received at least one shot.
Vaccine supply is still a huge problem - last week 1.5 million AstraZeneca doses arrived as part of the government’s contract, and Poland donated 500,000 AZ doses, but that’s it.
A disastrous weekend
When Friday’s newsletter went out, there wasn’t any indication that strengthened lockdown restrictions were coming down the pipeline.
That morning, it was announced that a ‘stay in place’ lockdown would begin for HCMC at midnight Sunday. Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh then said that this would last for at least two weeks, and military and additional police units would be mobilized to oversee food distribution and other logistics. (Last night, this was finally named Directive 11.)
By that point, rumors were already swirling, and a set of photos - two depicting armored personnel carriers on unidentifiable Vietnamese streets and another showing soldiers at an airport - made their way through every group chat possible, with people seeming to believe that tanks were rolling into town.
Perhaps appropriately, wartime language is being used, such as the city needing “to build each ward, commune and township; each agency, factory and enterprise is a fortress for epidemic prevention and control," while officials have called residents “soldiers” in the “battle” against Covid.
While this was happening, the city government did little to reassure people, other than a couple of articles saying that the city wouldn’t actually be entirely shut down. We knew something more strict was coming on Sunday night, but there were no details on what this meant.
And then, late Friday night, chairman of the city People’s Committee Nguyen Thanh Phong was “re-assigned” by the Politburo to a meaningless position in Hanoi. Vietnamese politics are not my strong suit, but this was very conspicuous timing for a change in leadership - there’s no doubt that the outbreak response here has been badly managed (more on that below), but getting rid of a leader in the middle of a deep crisis is never a good look. (This has also not been reported on the English-language sites of any of the Vietnamese news outlets.)
By Saturday morning, the complete lack of clarity helped create a city-wide superspreader event perfect for the Delta variant, with huge lines at supermarkets and pharmacies and massive crowds clearing out shelves.
Photos making the rounds were shocking, as social distancing had been thrown out the window, and people were fending for themselves in the middle of a total information void. Traffic was also crazy. I stayed in my neighborhood, but the streets were almost back to their normal selves - not the sort of return to normal you want to see at this moment.
Saturday night - way too late by that point - city leaders said there would be no state of emergency and the city would not be fully blockaded, while also finally providing some limited details.
From Monday, neighborhoods would be divided into green, yellow, orange and red zones, with residents of green/yellow zones allowed to leave home once a week for food, while people in orange/red zones would receive food distributions from the government.
Delivery services, meanwhile, would be able to continue in all but eight districts, though shippers can only operate within one district.
Yesterday morning, huge lines continued at supermarkets and convenience stores, with some people queuing as early as 4:30am, despite official assurances in the media that people didn’t need to worry about stocking up on food, while heavy traffic was reported all over town.
This text message (translated through Google) was also sent out by the city yesterday around 10am, but it was absurdly late by that point.
I’m going to swap my ‘objective reporter’ hat for my ‘average resident’ hat for a moment here. This weekend was an embarrassment, with the failure by officials to present any kind of coherent plan forcing people to take matters into their own hands and buy whatever they could in the belief that we’d all be locked in our houses waiting for military rations for two weeks.
Countless people across the city were placed at acute transmission risk - and the people they went home to were also put at risk - because of a total failure to communicate; a failure that will almost certainly drive an enormous increase in infections in the next week or two and blow a hole in the city’s goal of having this outbreak ‘under control’ by September 15. (Though I very much hope to be proven wrong.)
People living in areas with fewer cases had more mobility, and they likely brought the Delta variant back into their relatively safe neighborhoods, a development that will turn green zones into red zones in no time.
And what will the reaction be then?
Even more frightening than the supermarket photos are these photos of a very busy impromptu market in Binh Thanh District taken around 3am on Sunday - during curfew. These images make it perfectly clear how little trust people have in the official info they’re hearing - and it’s hard to blame them after these last few days.
Moving along - even through most of Sunday, it was still not at all clear what exactly was coming on Monday. An Excel file showing which wards were green, yellow, orange or red made the rounds, but then it was reported that no one knew where this came from, and it wasn’t accurate - in fact, the city still had not determined where these zones would be.
And then, officials clarified that, in fact, nobody would be able to go out to buy food - not even residents in green/yellow zones. Previous news stating otherwise had been sent out “in error.”
Instead, “the local logistics team, the community Covid-19 prevention team, local volunteer forces, police forces and the military” would go shopping for households once a week and bring food to them. The food supply network consists of 106 supermarkets, 2,895 convenience stores and 27 traditional markets.
In addition to dashing the hopes of anyone hoping they were in a green/yellow zone, this raises many logistical questions: which stores will these government staff shop at? How will they know what people want? Are supermarkets staying open and, if so, what if their employees live an orange/red zone that nobody can leave? How will a few thousand people go shopping for roughly 10 million people every week?
As of this writing, it’s still not clear how these will be answered, even though we are now under Directive 11.
One thing we do know is that almost 3,000 soldiers are being deployed to all 312 of HCMC’s wards and communes to help distribute welfare packages, go shopping for people and ensure social distancing compliance. The prime minister has also ordered the testing of every resident in the city - a task that will stretch healthcare workers and other city employees who are already overwhelmed.
Mobile vaccination teams will also be deployed to do home vaccinations in red and orange zones (which still have not been defined as of 8:30pm on Sunday night), though I’m not sure about green/yellow zones.
Moving forward, health officials had already predicted that community cases would continue increasing due to the refocused testing mentioned on Friday, but I will be stunned if this weekend’s events don’t lead to an enormous spike in cases. By the way, a reader asked for more explanation of the difference between ‘community’ cases and ‘isolated’ cases - community means people not in quarantine or in sealed off alleys/streets/neighborhoods that residents can’t leave. (Hopefully that helps.)
Suffice to say - this was a terrible weekend for the city, and vaccine deliveries need to accelerate dramatically to blunt the damage from the last two days.
Hopefully I’ll be able to address some other parts of the country on Friday.