The Outbreak's Cost

Economic Pain for Many

Hello, and welcome to all new readers. I’m very happy to hear that these updates are proving useful to people - there’s a ton of info to sort through every day, and it means a lot to me that you are reading. If you’ve received this through a shared link, you can sign up to receive future editions of the Vietnam Weekly below.

Before we get into the latest, I’d like to share links to a few organizations doing vital work to support poor and disadvantaged individuals and families in Ho Chi Minh City. Over the weekend it became clear that this is by far the strictest lockdown we’ve experienced here yet (more on that to come), and the restrictions are devastating for those who scrape by on daily income. Here are some options if you’re in a position to help financially:

Foodbank Vietnam is delivering meals and food to people across the city. They don’t have a donation link set up yet, but you can find out more about the group and contact them here.

Saigon Children, one of the city’s most prominent charities, is creating “COVID backpacks” with food staples, hygiene products, books and games for children in COVID-impacted areas. You can donate here.

GIVE Vietnam is running a fundraising campaign to provide thousands of meals to charities, hospitals, disadvantaged people and the relatives of COVID patients.

There are many more grassroots organizations working with people on the streets, but donations are sometimes only possible through local bank transfers. If you’d like more information on those, just reply to this email and I can share. And if you know of other organizations, please do let me know.

On to the news.

Case update

On Thursday night, this savage outbreak had accounted for 20,866 cases of community transmission nationwide since April 27. That number is now 26,271, with daily infection records falling on Friday (1,616), Saturday (1,844) and yesterday (1,945).

The Ministry of Health’s death toll is up to 116 (for some reason their COVID-19 dashboard appears to be behind on data).

Ho Chi Minh City continues to shatter daily records, and has now logged 13,012 cases, up from 9,066 on Thursday night. (Bac Giang, the early hotspot in this outbreak, is a distant second at 5,714.)

That line is not heading in a good direction, though there a few key things to keep in mind here: these are still tiny numbers relative to Vietnam’s population; HCMC is accounting for a huge majority of cases; the national ICU occupancy rate is just 2.6% (according to the WHO’s latest country situation report); and the majority of cases are being detected in areas that are already isolated.

According to that same WHO report, 943,831 RT-PCR tests were conducted nationwide in the last week, with a positivity rate of 0.4%. This number of tests shows that HCMC still has not reached goals that officials have set of 500,000 tests per day, or even higher. (It’s possible that that many samples are being taken, but results are clearly way behind.)

Dozens of cases without links to previously known infections continue to be found in HCMC each day, and it’s not clear yet when they may peak - officials have already said that huge numbers will continue this week, and field hospitals with thousands of rooms are being readied.

The lockdown

In Friday’s update, I noted that there was much confusion over the status of outdoor exercise and restaurant deliveries during HCMC’s Directive 16 lockdown, which is now on day four of a planned 15.

Over the weekend, it became clear that this was a true hard lockdown, the kind many probably expected last year given the system of governance here.

Local media has reported very critically on people walking, jogging or cycling for exercise, and even people taking their dogs out to use the bathroom have come under media fire. (Masteri, a massive apartment complex in District 2, has taken the particularly extreme step of banning residents from taking their dogs out within the compound.)

Social media and various message groups have also been full of reports of people being stopped for exercising and either told to go home or fined, though this seems to vary by district: Phu Nhuan, Binh Tan, District 2 and District 3 appear to be very strict, but I’ve heard less from elsewhere.

Some districts have set up checkpoints to make sure people have a valid reason to be out, but others have not: on Saturday I drove from District 2 to District 4 to bring groceries to friends who can’t leave their apartment due to a positive COVID case on their floor and hardly noticed any police presence. It is, however, extremely quiet.

The decision to ban deliveries by restaurants (shutting them down completely after weeks of delivery-only service) has proven, as expected, to be extremely disruptive, and also rather confounding.

City officials have said they took this step (which, to my knowledge, is not common anywhere) because if more than two delivery drivers were waiting at a restaurant, they would be breaking Directive 16 protocols on public gatherings. However, you can still order deliveries from supermarkets, and on trips to the store over the weekend there were large groups of delivery drivers waiting for goods. (To be clear: I’m not blaming the drivers, they need to make a living - but I don’t see any difference between this and restaurant delivery.)

Not to mention, one supermarket in particular was extremely crowded, with minimal social distancing in place - I actually felt pretty uncomfortable, but by the rules, that’s fine.

The socioeconomic damage

While this has been very frustrating, many city residents have the means to get through this. Many, however, do not, and I’d like to focus on them for the rest of this update.

This article from Tuoi Tre News profiles a few people who have either lost their job or are hardly making any money and are living off instant noodles, with funds to afford meat and fish only every few days.

VnExpress also highlighted the challenges facing working-class people, such as having to pay for COVID-19 tests in order to be able to travel or go to their workplace, while food prices are increasing due to the logistical problems of transporting goods from areas like Da Lat and the Mekong Delta into the city given negative Covid test requirements for drivers. While higher prices at the store are an annoyance for some, for anyone getting by on a few dollars per day, that’s an enormous difference.

Then there are lottery ticket sellers, all of whom are now out of work since the lottery has been suspended under Directive 16.

And, while there are some safety nets such as charity organizations, ward- or community-level aid and extended family, all of these networks are being stretched thin right now, and help from the central government is uncertain.

In April 2020, a US$2.6 billion aid package was approved amid Vietnam’s first significant COVID-19 wave in an effort to help people and businesses impacted by the pandemic at the time.

I assumed that financial aid had been distributed a long time ago, but it was recently reported that just US$571 million has been disbursed in over a year, which is frankly astonishing.

This comes as a new, US$1.1 billion relief package is being readied, with more people eligible and promises of easier access to funds.

We can only hope that aid is more effective, as the economic pain of this outbreak is real. The government estimates almost 13 million workers nationwide have been impacted by this wave, though that is surely a very conservative figure.

The tourism industry, which was already breathing on fumes, is almost completely shut down in southern Vietnam, while airlines and cinema chains are barely hanging on and it is not yet clear how HCMC’s hard lockdown will impact the city’s many, many F&B businesses, from street carts to sit-down restaurants.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s GDP growth hit 5.6% in the first half of this year, three times higher than the same period of 2020, largely on the back of manufacturing - but not everyone is seeing the benefits of that growth.

And let’s not forget the steps being taken to ensure that manufacturing carries on.

Earlier in this outbreak, factories in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang (home to Samsung’s mammoth complex and a number of Apple suppliers) set up tents so that workers could live in the facilities in order to reduce the risk of community infection.

Factories in and around HCMC are following suit, with Bloomberg reporting that 22 companies have set up tents or bamboo mats for an unknown number of workers.

Some factories where workers have tested positive are struggling to maintain operations, and news broke yesterday that a huge number of workers at a factory in Binh Duong Province broke down a gate and fled a factory that had been blocked off due to a positive case. It’s not clear why this happened, but we can assume that employees feared being quarantined for 14 days (or more) and losing their pay.

When it comes to the factories, it’s good that people still have income, but at what cost to their wellbeing? And for those struggling on the streets - this is going to be a long lockdown.

On Thursday there will be a new episode of the Vietnam Weekly Podcast featuring two guests directly involved with helping those most in need here in HCMC.

Until then.

Mike Tatarski