Vietnam's Outbreak Splits in Two

HCMC's Cases Accelerate as Hanoi Re-opens

Good morning. It’s been another rough week for Ho Chi Minh City, which we’ll get right into below. A warm welcome to all new readers, and a reminder that if you received this through a shared link, you can subscribe to both the free and paid (US$5/month) versions of the Vietnam Weekly below.

I plan to send out a piece for paying subscribers next week, and I’ll also be recording another podcast episode soon (as soon as the mic I ordered arrives). If you think there is anyone I should talk to in a future episode, please let me know!

Also, I wanted to give a shout-out to the Southeast Asia travel impact summary dashboard from Pear Anderson, as well as their weekly reports which give a great rundown on how the pandemic is effecting the tourism industry in Southeast Asia (not good, obviously - here in Vietnam, countless tour companies have gone out of business and Vietnam Airlines is reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy). This is very informative for anyone living in the region/planning to visit again once that’s feasible.

On to the news.

The Split Pandemic

Before going into the last few days in detail, here’s where the data stands. On Monday morning, this outbreak had accounted for 9,944 community cases, a number that is now 10,935. The national pandemic case total is 14,116, and the death toll has reached 72 (up from 64 at the start of the week).

Bac Giang Province still has the most cases by far, now 5,527, but its daily case count has slowed dramatically, and Bac Ninh Province has allowed all factories to resume operations.

Meanwhile Ho Chi Minh City’s infection rate has accelerated, and Vietnam’s largest city has now clocked 2,236 community cases (up significantly from 1,618 on Monday morning).

There is a lot of talk now about how the pandemic has fractured globally into countries with huge vaccine rollouts and those without, but here in Vietnam this outbreak has nearly split in two - and vaccines have nothing to do with it.

Eight provinces have gone at least a month with no detected cases, while 18 have gone at least two weeks. However, look at HCMC’s daily community case totals in comparison to the national situation.

While the bulk of HCMC’s new cases this week have been from people who were already isolated thanks to contact tracing, on Wednesday alone 21 cases were found during routine hospital screenings for unrelated medical issues among residents of nine districts. On Tuesday, nine cases were discovered this way.

This suggests even more widespread community infection than what we already know about. For example, I happened to pass by this popular District 2 restaurant right as it (and several other businesses) were being roped off due to a confirmed COVID-19 case among the kitchen staff. A Facebook post by Eddie’s also said that two Grab Bike drivers who had delivered from the restaurant over the last 10 days also tested positive. (I got yelled at by a plainclothes cop for taking this picture, which seems odd as this was already public knowledge.)

Thankfully, the AstraZeneca vaccine doses which arrived from Japan last week have been to good use, though not as quickly as expected - the city aimed for 200,000 injections per day starting last Saturday, but as of yesterday afternoon only a little over 100,000 shots had been administered in four days.

Hundreds of residents of hard-hit Go Vap and Binh Thanh districts have received their first shot, while over 300 supermarket and gas station employees received shots yesterday. Several personal connections in the furniture industry have also gotten their first dose, so it’s safe to assume that a lot of people connected to factories are included here.

Phu Tho Stadium in District 11 has been turned into a mass vaccination site, but look at the massive crowds outside of it.

I hate to think how bad things could be if those doses hadn’t arrived when they did.

Yet there are still major areas of concern. In addition to HCMC’s mystery infections, case numbers are rising in the vital industrial hub of Binh Duong Province, while Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen Province and Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan Province have both been placed under social distancing orders for two weeks.

Several factories in Dong Nai Province have set up temporary housing on their grounds so that workers don’t have to leave and risk catching the virus in the community.

Meanwhile, restaurants, cafes and barbershops in Hanoi were allowed to reopen on Tuesday after a month of outbreak-related restrictions - we can only hope that HCMC is able to see that happen sooner rather than later.

In other vaccine news, the 500,000 Sinopharm doses delivered from China have been allocated to nine northern provinces, with Quang Ninh receiving the most (230,000). These will go towards Chinese nationals working in Vietnam, Vietnamese intending to study or work in China, and residents of border provinces. Let’s just hope these doses are more effective than they have been elsewhere.

And on Tuesday, Nanogen, the company developing what is currently Vietnam’s most promising domestic COVID-19 vaccine, applied for emergency authorization for Nanocovax. However, the Ministry of Health denied the application as there isn’t sufficient data on the vaccine’s third phase of trials yet. This is a sound decision, even amid desperate need for more doses, as the data is indeed not there yet, and any mistake in a domestically produced vaccine rollout would be disastrous for public confidence.

Finally, I know I said I’d stop discussing prospective vaccine news, but this seems definite: one million AstraZeneca doses are expected to arrive each week in July as part of Vietnam’s contract with the company, while the first Pfizer shipment is also set for arrival next month.

Vietnam’s vaccination campaign remains among the slowest in mainland Southeast Asia by percentage of population, at the bottom with Myanmar, which is in the midst of widespread post-coup civil unrest.

Extra Links:

Mèo: A Complicated Love Affair (Saigoneer)

Ho Chi Minh City Looks to Get its Own Back (Asia Sentinel)

Vietnamese Architects Are Leaders in the Architecture of the Information Age (Saigoneer)

Vietnamese being trafficked by Chinese nationals to work in Cambodian casinos, officials warn (South China Morning Post)

Stay safe, and have a great weekend!

Mike Tatarski