Lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City

As case numbers continue to rise sharply

Normally I start these off with a ‘good morning,’ but given the week we’ve had here, that just doesn’t feel right. I’ve had a hard time deciding where to even begin with this one, as there is simply so much ground to cover, but I’ll give it my best. The divide between countries with widespread access to vaccines and those without is becoming starker by the day, and the Delta variant is an absolute monster.

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This is a long update.

Infections rise significantly

On Monday morning, this outbreak was responsible for 16,782 community cases of COVID-19. That figure has grown to 20,866, with over 1,000 new cases being reported for the first time the entire pandemic on Monday (1,089), followed by 1,019 on Tuesday, 997 on Wednesday and a record 1,307 yesterday.

The pandemic death toll has also gone into triple-digits (still remarkable this far into the pandemic), increasing from 86 on Monday to 104. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health said that 270 current patients have a severe prognosis, and 106 are in very severe condition. Deaths have almost entirely remained among older people with other health conditions. (I do have some questions about the death toll at the moment though - this article says Dong Thap Province has seen 12 COVID-19 deaths since July 2, but only two have been confirmed by the health ministry.)

Ho Chi Minh City is absolutely running away as the nation’s outbreak epicenter, with 9,066 cases now logged and infection numbers setting new records almost every day. The majority of these remain in areas that are already isolated (though now that entails the entire city), but dozens per day are being found through hospital screenings and surveillance testing.

The situation is so serious that Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who heads the national COVID-19 task force, has been tasked with leading the city’s outbreak response - a clear indictment of how things have been handled thus far.

As far as we know, this is largely driven by the Delta variant, but I haven’t seen a breakdown of cases based on that - please let me know if I missed it.

Dong Thap, Binh Duong and Phu Yen continue to add substantial cases as well.

The lockdown

On Tuesday, rumors started circulating that Directive 16 - the strictest form of social distancing in Vietnam - would be implemented in HCMC later in the week.

That afternoon, city leaders dismissed the rumors. By the next day that had evolved into the government asking for ‘understanding’ from the public if tougher lockdown restrictions were needed, and at that point the writing was on the wall. For good measure, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh then called for maximum travel restrictions related to HCMC.

The official announcement finally came Wednesday evening: Directive 16 would go into effect at midnight Thursday (last night) for 15 days. On paper, this isn’t terribly different from Directive 10, regulations made specifically for the city a couple of weeks ago, but more businesses will have to close and no gatherings of more than two people are allowed, while residents can only leave their home for emergencies or for necessities such as food or medicine.

Top leadership has also outlined in fairly stark terms how serious this is, with PM Chinh saying the city’s situation is “unprecedented”

To be frank, I don’t know why this took so long. I understand that officials are trying to balance public health with economic health, but the economic damage is already here, while case numbers have only gone up and spread to other provinces. (Prompting the takeover by Deputy PM Dam, a foreign-educated technocrat who has been extremely competent and effective over the last 18 months.)

Unfortunately, the rumors also sparked panic buying, with reports of massive lines and empty shelves at supermarkets across the city, despite official assurances that food supply will remain steady.

Directive 16 was implemented in late March/early April 2020, so we’ve been here before, but the situation is far more serious this time, and it’s not clear whether even outdoor exercise or food deliveries will be allowed now. (At the moment it doesn’t look good: fines of up to VND3 million (US$131) can be levied on people who leave home without a valid reason, and delivery services have been suspended, though I can’t see that second one lasting long.)

There are also some genuine food concerns, as a third key wholesale market (this time in Thu Duc) was closed this week due to infections there. Vendors have been asked to sell their goods online and deliver directly to customers, but that is disruptive.

The previous decision to shut down Binh Dien wholesale market (the city’s largest) in District 8 came after officials tried to keep it open by saying that vendors had to provide a negative COVID test in order to return - this resulted in a massive crowd as people tried to get tested. (These markets have also helped spread the virus to other provinces, particularly in the Mekong Delta, as traders and truck drivers travel between the locations every day.)

This continues a string of frankly baffling decisions that have led to extremely risky situations: in previous weeks there was overcrowding at a vaccination site in District 11 and poor social distancing at the start of the hastily ordered mass-testing campaign, and over the last several days the country has gone ahead with the 2021 high school graduation exams, requiring around 1 million students to take in-person tests. (And their parents to bring them to schools, and teachers to administer the exams, and so on.)

Two exam sites in Phu Yen, on the south-central coast, were closed on Wednesday (the first day of the exams) after 166 suspected COVID-19 infections were detected among students and staff.

HCMC’s COVID-19 testing campaign was actually paused last weekend in order to test students and people who would take part in the exams, and on Wednesday a student who fainted during a test (the academic kind) ended up coming back positive for COVID-19 after being taken for treatment.

Wednesday was really something of a hellish day, as on top of the exam news and the lockdown rumors, we learned that over 80 inmates and employees at the high-security Chi Hoa Prison in the city had tested positive for the virus; that a prisoner had died of COVID-19 after being taken to a hospital managed by the Ministry of Public Security; and that a riot broke out when medical workers arrived to test people at the prison.

To my knowledge, this is the first Covid outbreak in a prison here, and the articles about the riot only raised more questions than they answered. (One also said that the dead inmate had not been counted in the health ministry’s death toll.)

Meanwhile, transit into/out of HCMC is severely restricted: all transportation drivers going to or from the city have to have a valid negative Covid test certificate, which will place pressure on testing locations and make life difficult for drivers moving essential goods.

And, people traveling from HCMC to any province in the country must isolate upon arrival for seven days and be tested three times before they can move around.

It’s expected that case numbers here will continue to increase substantially in the coming days with mass testing results still coming in, and I fear for what happens if these two weeks don’t bend the curve back down, as it’s been a very damaging five weeks for HCMC already.

I had planned on going into the socioeconomic impact of this outbreak in more detail, but this is already over 1,000 words and the topic deserves plenty of space, so I’ll pull that out for Monday - I’m also pretty stressed by all of this.

In closing, the first shipments of Pfizer (97,000 doses) and Moderna (2 million) vaccine doses have also either arrived or are about to arrive, though the distributions plans haven’t been detailed yet. Let’s hope this weekend brings better news than this week.

Extra Links:

With Summer Comes a Glorious Lotus Harvest Season in Hoi An (Saigoneer)

Young members of ethnic minority groups most at risk in Vietnam-China human trafficking trade: report (South China Morning Post)

The Ephemeral Grace of Trái Vải (Saigoneer)

Have a safe weekend.

Mike Tatarski