Ngoc Ha is very angry. Someone has added another layer of barricades outside her house in central Hanoi, on top of the one that was put up by the local authorities a couple days ago. The double barrier blocks the main entrance to her residential ward with a dozen households.
No-one dares to pass it as everyone knows just a couple hundred meters away there’s a checkpoint where young volunteers zealously stop passers-by and demand to see their travel permits. Those who don’t have it face a hefty fine of two million dong ($90).
And so the self-made barricade of cardboard, old wooden planks and sheets of corrugated plastic lies undisturbed under the pouring September rain, an ugly reminder of Hanoi’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Ha is lucky to be able to work from home. Hundreds of others in her area who have to go out to work have to obtain the hard-to-get passes and then, every morning trickle through the checkpoint, clustering before the barrier and risking cross-infection.
Hanoi is being divided to “zones” of different colors. In “green zones” where there’s no known COVID cases, people can still move around freely but in “red zones” with COVID cases like the one where Ha lives, everything is restricted. She can only go out for food shopping three times a week and her block has now become some kind of a prison camp.
The normally mild-mannered 50-year-old mother of two is almost shouting at the leader of the ward: “What happens if there is a fire? Or an emergency? Do you expect people to get off a stretcher and jump themselves over the barricade?”
Fresh COVID outbreak
She is not the only one who is angry and frustrated over how the government is handling the pandemic.
Hanoi is suffering from a fresh outbreak of coronavirus, with dozens of new cases each day. Since the end of April, 3,700 people in Vietnam’s capital have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. The number for the whole country has now exceeded half a million, with the largest hub, Ho Chi Minh City, accounting for half. The death toll tops 13,000 compared to zero deaths a year ago.
Vaccination is going at a very slow rate, mainly because of the lack of vaccines. As of Sept. 9, only 3.9 percent of the population have been fully vaccinated.
This new, fourth wave of COVID is especially worrying because of the presence of the highly contagious Delta variant. It has also exposed the unpreparedness of the whole system in dealing with one of the gravest public health disasters in modern times.
“We became too complacent after the initial outbreaks [last year],” said a veteran doctor in Ho Chi Minh City, who wished to stay anonymous to avoid getting into trouble with authorities. “The government thought it was easy to contain the virus this time, too. We have had a whole year, but did not make any preparation in terms of medical resources and procurement of vaccines.”
“It really shows the government doesn’t have any appropriate understanding of the virus nor the pandemic,” he added.
The result is late, inadequate and often confusing policies issued by government at all levels. It is not unheard of that a directive is given late in the afternoon, only to be withdrawn that night. Or half-baked orders that leave people baffled.
Explaining some of the recent policy mistakes, Hanoi’s Chairman Chu Ngoc Anh said the situation is “new and unprecedented” but “we listen to criticism and adjust.”
On Aug. 30, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh seemed to have signaled that Vietnam is ready to change course from the “Zero COVID” strategy which has become outdated to a new, more suitable approach. He told a high-level government meeting: “We should be aware that this battle against COVID is going to be a long one and we will have to co-exist with the pandemic as total containment is impossible.”
Ten days on, there’s still nothing to back up Chinh’s “living with COVID” policy.
Authorities across the country are still tracking and tracing positive cases and mass testing is being done in hotspots in order to “extract F0s from the society,” which is official language for confirmed COVID cases.
Contact tracing and isolation – the measures that contributed to Vietnam’s success in keeping the virus at bay last year – are still very much alive and kicking. Now though, they have led to widespread public grievances.
A video clip sent to the RFA Vietnamese Service shows a man in Ca Mau city being restrained by uniformed police and forced into a car to be taken away because he refused to take a COVID test. The man is writhing violently and screaming: “You are breaking my arm! Have I done a robbery or a murder to be treated like this?”
In another clip, people in an area in Binh Tan district in Ho Chi Minh City, are seen protesting against an effort to blockade the entire residential ward because there were allegedly around one hundred F0 cases inside. A man is heard saying: “Do you want to kill all of us here?”
In a more extreme case, the local government in Hoang Hoa district in Thanh Hoa province, decided to lock up a whole village with 400 people for 14 days just because some of them had had contact with those who had been in contact with suspected positive cases.
Strict containment measures that “show no respect to citizens” are still being imposed, according to the veteran doctor in Ho Chi Minh City.
A member of Vietnamese parliament, Luu Binh Nhuong, was quoted in the domestic media as warning that the authorities “should not take COVID prevention as the pretext for going against laws and the constitution. The public don’t approve of this.”
Nhuong urged authorities to direct resources to improve people’s welfare and assist those who are in need because of COVID. With lockdowns being imposed in many locations, residents have been complaining about lack of food and essential services. But the distribution of supplies has been problematic, to say the least, even in government-run quarantine and treatment facilities.
Shocking images coming from a makeshift hospital in Binh Duong province near Ho Chi Minh City show hundreds of COVID patients fighting for food. The hospital, one of the largest of its kind in Vietnam, created after mainstream hospitals became overloaded, has also been suffering from electricity and water shortages.
Two weeks ago, for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war, the military was brought in to Ho Chi Minh City to support the city’s quarantined residents. Soldiers and the police have been helping with delivery of supplies, but also with enforcing stay-at-home rules. Troop deployment was a smart move, analysts say, as the army enjoys a high level of credibility and trust in a country that has experienced numerous wars. But the presence of army uniforms and guns on the streets may also indicate that the authorities are aware of the growing public discontent.
Unrest is extremely rare in Vietnam and the government takes great pride in maintaining political and social stability. But as the number of Covid cases has shown signs of dropping, albeit slowly, the need to look after the people whose livelihoods have been shattered by the pandemic increases.
“At night, in empty street corners, under the bridges or outside hospital gates, homeless people have reappeared who look many times worse than before. At dusk and at dawn, we can find ‘guerrilla’ squatting markets where both sellers and buyers move quietly and swiftly,” writes a well-known columnist, Pham Gia Hien, in the popular VnExpress news portal about what he sees these days in Hanoi.
“These are the first drops that spill out of the glass [of the population’s patience].”