The Race to Vaccinate

As everyone awaits the 15th

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On to the news.

Data Update

At the start of the week, 482,498 cases (215,269 active) had been recorded during this outbreak. Those figures are now 571,746 and 223,459, while the death toll has risen from 13,074 to 14,470. The national daily infection average over the last week was 12,750.

Ho Chi Minh City (278,703 cases and 11,277 deaths) continues to log high daily infections and deaths, with the former attributed to increased testing (I was tested twice this week). These figures are cause for concern as the 15th approaches and residents anticipate some loosening of restrictions. (More on that below.)

Vaccinations have finally picked up speed, with over 1 million shots administered nationwide on Monday, by far the most in nearly a month. HCMC and several other locations are racing to vaccinate their adult populations in the coming days in order to begin some form of ‘new normal,’ though the national figure remains very low: just 3.9% of the population is fully vaccinated.

According to the health ministry’s vaccination dashboard, 101.2% of adults in HCMC have received a shot - it seems fully vaccinated people are being counted twice. The ministry also approved the mixing of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines given a shortage of the former. Previously, only AstraZeneca and Pfizer were mixed.

The chairman’s appearance

On Monday night, Pham Van Mai, Chairman of the HCMC People’s Committee, participated in a Facebook livestream to discuss the ongoing lockdown and plans for when Directive 16 expires on September 15.

A local Twitter user provided an extremely helpful rapid translation, though the event was light on specifics. This wasn’t surprising, but the fact that this took place at all was, I believe, unprecedented. High-level Vietnamese officials are almost never placed in a public setting, and certainly not one where members of the public can directly submit questions.

At one point over 70,000 people were watching, and comments on the Facebook stream were non-stop: I had Google Translate running in my browser, which couldn’t keep up with all of them, but a huge number were from people saying they had received no financial or food support from the government for months. I don’t know how or if all of these were conveyed to the chairman, but it was still rather extraordinary.

The main policy takeaway from this was that HCMC’s ‘stay in place’ lockdown will continue until the 15th (it was originally scheduled to end at the start of this week). It seemed that people in ‘green zones’ would potentially be able to resume in-person shopping once a week, but there haven’t been further details on that.

The delivery surprise

That extension was fully expected given the ongoing COVID-19 situation. What wasn’t expected was the announcement late Wednesday night that restaurants in HCMC would be able to resume delivery services immediately.

This was met with a ton of excitement and many WhatsApp messages in all-caps, as food deliveries have been shut down for two months, but the rules placed on restaurants are onerous.

They can only operate from 6am-6pm, must arrange delivery through Grab or other tech platforms, can only deliver within their district, all staff must have at least one vaccine dose and be tested every two days, and they must follow the ‘three on the spot’ model which some factories maintain, meaning employees have to work, live and eat on-site.

Many restaurants won’t be able to manage that last rule, though some family-run Vietnamese places do that already since they are part of a house. Nonetheless, local media ran several stories yesterday about how restaurant owners are reluctant to open under these regulations: traditional markets are still closed so sourcing ingredients is time-consuming and expensive, while paying for employee testing is an added cost and delivery services are already overwhelmed (and expensive) without the added demand of food orders.

Without a doubt, some places will figure this out in the coming days, but it’s hard not to sympathize with restaurant owners who don’t want to take the risk, especially given how quickly rules can be reversed/changed.

The plight of health workers

VnExpress published three articles this week that placed the brutal conditions health workers face in stark relief. The first detailed a proposal from the Ministry of Health to revoke medical licenses from doctors or nurses who quit their job and reward those who contribute to pandemic control.

There’s really no word for this other than cruel: health workers nationwide have been working non-stop for months at this point, and it’s understandable if they are burned out. Potentially ending their career for deciding they need a break is a horrible approach to mental health.

Another article noted that in HCMC’s field hospitals, each doctor and nurse has to care for an average of 150 patients while spending up to 10 hours straight in full-body protective suits.

And finally, this piece (in Vietnamese) covers the financial stress that medical workers must deal with. One nurse, for example, has had her salary cut for “underperforming” and only makes around US$200 per month. It also details the allowances that doctors receive when treating Covid patients: they work on 21-day rotations and receive VND300,000 (US$13) per day.

But after that rotation, since they came into contact with positive patients, they have to quarantine at their hospital for 14 days, and then spend another seven days at home. During this three-week period, they receive no daily allowance.

VTV released a gripping 50-minute documentary on a hospital in HCMC which treats pregnant women infected with Covid. It is a brutal watch, but shows what hospitals are up against. It’s in Vietnamese, and this Twitter thread translates some of the main scenes (warning: this is really not for the faint of heart).

There was also grim news regarding children this week: HCMC alone has around 3,000 child COVID-19 patients, while 250 kids in the city have been orphaned by the virus.

Looking to the 15th

All eyes are on next Wednesday, which is now not only HCMC’s ‘deadline’ for controlling the outbreak, but the entire country’s. Setting a deadline for a virulent infectious disease is a huge risk, but here we are. Given how complicated this is, I’d expect new rules for HCMC to come at the last minute and not be dramatic, but then again the food delivery about-face was a big surprise, so I could be wrong.

Perhaps the economic and financial pain is just too overwhelming at this point.

Can Gio became the city’s third district to announce that they have ‘controlled’ the outbreak (relatively easy as the district is sparsely populated and only connected to the rest of the city by ferry).

City officials are discussing a ‘green pass’ for fully vaccinated residents, though the vaccination database is very incomplete: neither of my shots show up in it, and anecdotally this is not uncommon.

Dong Nai Province is working on a similar plan for fully vaccinated residents, though only 62,000 of almost 4 million people there have gotten two shots. Four districts in Binh Duong have eased their lockdown back to Directive 15, though the rest of the province is still in a challenging situation.

Hanoi has received an additional 2 million vaccine doses, including 1 million Sinopharm doses, as it pushes to administer at least one shot to all adult residents by the 15th. Officials in the capital also aim to test the entire city by next week. (I would love to know why neither Hanoi or HCMC ever truly tested their entire population - recently, testing has been touted, along with vaccinations, as the way to get this under control, but it just hasn’t happened.)

Huge traffic jams also hit Hanoi this week due to confusing, inconsistent travel permit regulations - the exact situation which HCMC dealt with multiple times earlier in the outbreak.

Da Nang, whose outbreak is easing, is also beginning a vaccine push, and up to 20 million various doses are expected to arrive in the country by the end of this month.

And Lam Dong, home to Da Lat, reopened tourist attractions, restaurants and hotels to province residents. To quote Liz Lemon: I want to go to there.


Extra links:

As Lockdown Intensifies, Animal Shelters Struggle to Rescue, Care for Abandoned Pets (Saigoneer)

The Young Vietnamese Artisans Breathing New Life Into Animals Carcasses (Urbanist Hanoi)

‘Hunger was something we read about’: lockdown leaves Vietnam’s poor without food (The Guardian)'

'My saviour': Hanoi's tiny balconies a refuge in lockdown (AFP)

Have a safe weekend.

Mike Tatarski