The End of Lockdown In Sight

But what is the 'new normal'?

Good morning! Hello to new readers, and I hope everyone had a safe weekend. These newsletters are finally becoming more positive, though there’s still a very long way to go before there’s any sense of real normalcy (at least here in Ho Chi Minh City).

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On to the news.

Data Update

At the start of the weekend, the outbreak had accounted for 723,963 cases (216,933 active), figures that are now 752,186 and 210,182. The seven-day rolling national average has fallen to 9,938, the lowest that number has been since August 20.

Health officials said that Ho Chi Minh City has passed its peak, with large-scale testing in at-risk areas over the weekend returning a positivity rate of just 0.2%. The city has accounted for 371,660 cases and 14,246 deaths in total, while Binh Duong passed 200,000 cases yesterday.

The overall death toll is now 18,584, up from 18,017 on Thursday night.

8.2% of the population is fully vaccinated. 1.05 million doses of Cuba’s Abdala vaccine were brought to Vietnam on President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s plane when he returned from a visit to the island nation and the United States. Phuc also visited Pfizer’s HQ in New York and asked the company for more doses - Pfizer is expected to deliver 31 million doses this year, with no exact timeline.

In a fairly big development, the Vietnamese pharmaceutical firm Vabiotech has begun producing the Sputnik V vaccine using semi-finished material sent from Russia. A full technology transfer is expected at some point, but in the meantime, Vabiotech plans to produce up to 5 million doses per month for the national vaccination campaign.

There has been no other news on Nanocovax, so it seems a true domestic vaccine won’t be making an appearance any time soon.

What Will October 1 Bring?

While Friday’s newsletter focused outside of HCMC, a lot of space this week will be devoted to the city, whose ‘shelter-in-place’ lockdown expires on September 30 (Thursday night). Several key health indicators here have improved recently, while there has been a lot of official discussion of a ‘new normal’ beginning October 1.

The overarching context is that, on Saturday, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh told a government meeting that Vietnam is officially moving away from ‘zero-Covid’ to “a safe, flexible adaptation and effective control of the disease.”

Regular readers will know that this isn’t the first time Chinh has mentioned ‘living with Covid,’ but actual policies have been slow to catch up, and a number of business associations have already complained that new regulations - particularly a set of guidelines released by the Ministry of Health - still lean toward ‘zero-Covid.’

Interestingly, Chinh also mentioned inadequate pandemic regulations around the April 30/May 1 holidays earlier this year, when domestic travel was allowed to continue largely as normal even though new infections had been detected in the north a few days earlier. It’s been speculated that this long weekend played a role in igniting the outbreak, but this is the first time I’ve seen high-level acknowledgement of that fact.

And at a digital nationwide conference between government and the business community yesterday, Chinh said the country will run out of resources if it solely focuses on fighting the epidemic, while the head of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that if lockdowns continue, business will collapse.

The business sector (both domestic and foreign-invested) is lobbying hard for a rapid national re-opening amid massive damage: the tourism sector, for example, has only been able to operate for three months so far this year, while tens of thousands of workers in the industry are unemployed. Vietravel, a leading tour operater, currently has just 20 active employees, compared to the usual 1,700.

We don’t yet know what this will mean for daily life in HCMC, but last night we learned that municipal officials are drafting a new directive specifically for the city, which will be announced before the 1st. The good news is that this seems to imply that the current military-supported strict lockdown will not be extended.

Officials have also said that all barriers within the city will be removed, while travel permits will also be abolished - though checkpoints will remain in place at the city’s entrances.

This would be a huge step, as checkpoints and confusing permit regulations have made life miserable for delivery drivers and businesses currently able to operate.

This move toward a unique new directive came after city leaders asked for permission to create their own set of guidelines since, according to the health ministry’s latest parameters, HCMC would still be considered ‘very high risk,’ making re-opening impossible.

One major issue that still needs to be clarified is how exactly the proposed ‘green pass’ system will work for fully vaccinated people. While digital records are being worked on (my vaccinations finally showed up in the app last week), it is not known where these will need to be used, or who will check them.

There hasn’t been much discussion of how things are going in District 7 and Cu Chi, which were meant to pilot some potential new policies for the rest of the city.

There’s also this confusing proposal regarding new traffic rules (if domestic media calls a plan ‘elaborate,’ you know it really is).

City agencies are also working on plans to bring workers who left earlier in the outbreak back: according to this, HCMC has worked with other provinces to help around 33,000 people return to their hometowns since July. Many others left without official assistance in order to escape when the outbreak was its worst: it’s now time to figure out who wants to come back (and how).

(In fact, lots of people are still leaving the city, particularly for the Mekong Delta, where many provinces have loosened their lockdown restrictions amid falling case numbers.)

Overall, I’d say HCMC’s direction remains somewhat confusing: we know changes will happen on Friday, but it’s not at all clear what businesses will be able to re-open, who will be able to move around the city, whether in-person grocery shopping will resume city-wide, or whether outdoor exercise will finally be allowed again. (Though at least we know, according to this frankly baffling article, that beauty clinics and cosmetic departments at hospitals will be able to re-open.)

I’m still of the belief that little will happen fast, as everything so far has been extremely conservative and risk-averse, while officials do not want to get caught allowing crowds like Hanoi saw last week to gather on the streets.

Planes & Trains

In a move that will slowly help the domestic tourism industry get up from its position flat on the ground, the Ministry of Transport has proposed a four-phase (everyone loves phases) resumption of domestic flights with gradually increasing daily flights and passenger numbers.

A similar plan is under discussion for passenger rail services, which have been suspended nationally for months.

Speaking of tourism, Phu Quoc officials now say they are aiming to launch their six-month pilot plan to welcome fully vaccinated international guests in November. As discussed last week, the October timeline fell apart due to low vaccination rates.

Tourists would have to fly on charter flights and stay in one location, while 17 hotels are currently registered for the program. (I’ve heard that the gigantic Vinpearl resort there is doing trial runs with Vinschool employees.)

Khanh Hoa Province, meanwhile, looked at these difficulties and said ‘hold my beer,’ with officials there also announcing intentions to welcome fully vaccinated foreign visitors from November. Under the first phase (more phases), guests on chartered flights would stay in designated resorts on the coastal strip in Cam Ranh, 45 kilometers south of Nha Trang.

According to the health ministry’s vaccination portal, about 95% of adults in Khanh Hoa have received at least one dose.

There is still no public discussion of resuming normal inbound international flights for any purpose at all.

And in financial news, the National Assembly gave the green light for US$640 million to be taken out of the national budget for pandemic expenses. US$88 million will go to HCMC, while US$22 million each will go to Binh Duong and Dong Nai, the three hardest-hit areas.


Extra Links:

In Lockdown, Saigoneers Draw Strength From an Unexpected Wealth of Support: Each Other (Saigoneer)

How Hanoi Residents and Collectives Look out for the City's Most Vulnerable (Urbanist Hanoi)

Has Vietnam turned a corner in its coronavirus fight? (South China Morning Post)

The Purpose of Voi (Saigoneer)

Back Friday with the weekly wrap.

Mike Tatarski