Week One of 'Stay in Place'

As soldiers do the grocery shopping

Good morning! Monday’s edition of the Vietnam Weekly got an enormous response, so welcome to all new readers, and I’m glad to hear that many people found it helpful - I was plenty confused by events myself, but it’s good to know that my work was useful.

If you’re reading this through a shared link and would like to sign up, or if you’d like to upgrade to a paid subscription (US$5/month), you can do so below.

I had intended to release a new Vietnam Weekly Podcast episode this week, but that didn’t come together. Also - if you have any suggestions of guests you’d like to hear, please let me know. And for, the first time in many weeks, today’s edition features a section not devoted to the pandemic.

On to the news.

Data update

At the start of the week, 343,973 domestic COVID-19 infections had been logged since April 27, and that number is now 392,885 - 194,786 of which are active. The seven-day national average is consistently moving up, while Ho Chi Minh City’s daily cases are on the upswing as well (more on that later) - with ongoing high rates of community infections.

Daily recoveries are moving up as well, which is welcome news, but still behind daily new infections by around 4,000 - except for yesterday, when an amazing 18,567 patients were cleared.

The death toll continues its inexorable climb as well, from 8,277 at the week’s start to 9,667, with HCMC accounting for the vast majority of deaths.

And, crucially, vaccinations remain sluggish as supply continues at a trickle. The last time over 500,000 doses were administered nationally in a single day was August 16 - in fact, 400,000 has only been cleared three times since then. 16.6% of the population has now received at least one shot, compared to 15.9% on Sunday (just 2.1% are fully vaccinated). Well over 70% of adults in HCMC have received their first shot.

Ho Chi Minh City’s first week of ‘stay in place’

Since last weekend’s pure confusion, things have settled down quite a bit, but the city remains in a dangerous position. Officials have been warning that cases would start to increase from Wednesday thanks to expanded testing, and it also remains to be seen how much transmission took place during the multiple days of panic buying.

In terms of food supply, individual wards have largely been given leeway to decide on their own system: some have worked with supermarkets and convenience stores to create ‘combo’ packages at different price points, while others allow residents to list what they need and submit that.

I live in Thao Dien, and we received two sheets where we can list a maximum of 15 items (no beer, liquor or tobacco) per week. I haven’t tried the system yet since we have plenty of food at the moment, but in theory I have to call a phone number linked to a local government organization, place the order, and then wait for a soldier/volunteer/etc. to go shop and deliver it to my house.

Depending on the ward, individual supermarkets have also been allowed to operate on their own and take direct orders from residents, though government workers still have to go do the shopping.

I’ve heard from a few friends who ordered in their respective neighborhood and things went smoothly, though this isn’t universal: VnExpress has a story (in Vietnamese) about situations in which items people requested were out stock, or where very strict rules set by local governments left stores with expiring goods, among other issues.

Also - after initial photos of the military deployment here looked fairly sinister, with soldiers armed with assault rifles and clad in riot gear at checkpoints - the military shopping system has resulted in some truly delightful photos, such as this set from Tuoi Tre and, in this piece from Zing, my absolute favorite photo of the outbreak so far. (I’m not sure who the photographer is, but I want to give them credit.)

One can only wonder what a young recruit whose mom has probably done all of the shopping for makes of all this.

Such levity is needed at times, as things are dire for many - while official language is very war-like, with mentions of a “decisive battle,” homes as “fortresses” and residents as “soldiers.”

A new feature from Zalo, the popular messaging app, that helps people in difficult situations post what they need, saw over 60,000 instances of aid in its first 12 days.

Also this week, hundreds of homeless people have been picked up by police and sent to shelters (or, if they test positive for COVID-19, quarantine, and if they test positive for drugs, a rehabilitation center).

The story linked above includes a number of gut-wrenching details, and I have to give credit where it is due: local media have done a very good job of highlighting the horrific toll this outbreak and the ensuing restrictions are taking on people - and these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. (Tuoi Tre also ran a story on how migrants from ethnic minority communities are barely hanging on amid Hanoi’s lockdown.)

Testing times

I also want to mention this long, wonky article (in Vietnamese) by Nguyen Thien Nhan - former secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee - published by Zing which featured some very detailed info on recent testing in HCMC, which is something I’ve had a really hard time tracking.

For some reason, testing in the city fell from an average of nearly 307,000 tests per day in early July to an average of just 22,140 per day in the second week of this month. Case numbers continued to climb at the same time, leading to a positivity rate of 17.4% - well above the World Health Organization’s guidance saying that a rate of more than 12% indicates a lack of testing.

Nhan also used Vietnam’s average COVID-19 death rate - 2.36% - to estimate that HCMC probably has at least 90,000 more cases than it has detected.

Meanwhile, rapid testing carried out this week reportedly returned nearly 20,000 positive samples from 600,000 people, a positivity rate of 3.1% - which matches the WHO’s target for appropriate testing, and led the health minister to say that the outbreak could be brought under control “soon.”

The vagaries of obtaining travel permits for businesses still allowed to operate are causing problems for everyone from tech component suppliers to gas and water distributors, while the Ministry of Agriculture has reaffirmed that more than enough food is stocked for the southern region.

Up to four million vaccine doses are expected to arrive by the end of this month, including 1 million Pfizer doses donated by the US during Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit (more on that below).

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh - who is also now head of the National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control, taking the reigns from Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam - is currently in HCMC and spent yesterday inspecting the city’s outbreak response.

Chinh also sent a letter to the WHO this week asking the organization to give Vietnam priority in its next round of vaccine allocations.

Speaking of government, Pham Van Mai, who was Deputy Secretary of the HCMC Party Committee, was selected as the new chairman of the city People’s Committee, replacing Nguyen Thanh Phong, who was unceremoniously dumped last Friday.

Mai has called for the creation of a detailed plan for re-opening the city, while also noting that the outbreak won’t end on September 15 (which we all know anyway) - in fact, several articles this week have mentioned how this could last until the end of the year, and even into 2022.

Officials in Binh Thanh District tested around 2,000 people living in shacks and very narrow alleys and moved those who tested negative into unused apartment buildings - the district will provide them with food, money, and - when possible - vaccinations.

Officials in Binh Duong expect to see 50,000 cases there in the next two weeks, which would bring the province to 120,000 infections, while the leader of Hanoi has ordered all residents in blockaded areas to be tested - and be sent to centralized quarantine if they refuse.

And in a very innovative move, the government is offering to pay recovered COVID-19 patients a monthly allowance if they help overwhelmed hospital staff with treating current cases.

Havana Syndrome - in Hanoi

On Tuesday, Vice President Harris’ departure from Singapore for Hanoi was delayed. Initially, it wasn’t clear why, but then it was reported that this was due to a “possible anomalous health incident” in the Vietnamese capital.

This is US government speak for the strange medical symptoms which have impacted hundreds of American and Canadian diplomats and intelligence personnel around the world, a phenomenon first reported in Havana.

While Harris’ trip continued, NBC reported that two American diplomats were going to be evacuated from Hanoi after incidents at their homes - and that this wasn’t the first time such reports had popped up in the city.

The Vice President’s visit included attending the opening of the CDC’s new regional office, one of four in the world; the confirmation of a new US$1.2 billion US embassy in Hanoi (I believe this will be America’s most expensive embassy yet); and the 1 million Pfizer doses donation announcement. (500,000 have arrived in HCMC, over 200,000 have arrived in Hanoi, and the rest will arrive today).

And just before Harris’ arrival, Reuters reported that the Chinese ambassador had an unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Chinh, after which the latter reiterated that Vietnam will not take sides between China and the US. China also donated 200,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses to Vietnam’s defense ministry.


Extra Links:

Fishers on the Frontlines (Environmental Reporting Collective)

Vietnam War Victims Wanted Justice. They Were Given ‘30 Bags of Rice.’ (New York Times)

Delta Variant Outbreaks in Sparsely Vaccinated Asian Countries Disrupt Production (Wall Street Journal)

On Covid-19 frontlines, health workers run gauntlet of death, illness (VnExpress International)

Have a safe weekend.

Mike Tatarski