With COVID-19 under control, Vietnam looks to rebuild economy

As of early June, Vietnam had recorded only around 330 cases of COVID-19 and not a single fatality. The figures are remarkable for a country with a population of nearly 100 million and a border with China.

The government attributes this to early and robust action to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But the economic impact of the pandemic has been harder to mitigate.

Putting lives first

The Vietnamese government said early on that it would put people ahead of the economy and implemented a series of strict preventive measures.

Immediately after the first case was confirmed in the country in late January, authorities introduced quarantine for infected people and anyone they had been in contact with. In early February, the government began denying entry to non-nationals who had been in China over the previous 14 days.

Vietnam quickly implemented antivirus measures.

In March, the infection began to spread, mainly among those who had returned from abroad. In response, the government began quarantining all people entering the country and denied entry to all citizens of other nations.

In districts where clusters of infections were found, authorities restricted residents' movement by cordoning off the area. Nearly one million people were put in isolation nationwide.

Some districts were locked down to prevent the spread of infections.

And from the beginning of April, the government restricted nonessential outings and suspended the operation of stores other than supermarkets and pharmacies.

The government began easing restrictions as early as mid-April. Schools, department stores and public transportation have all resumed operations in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The professional soccer league has even been allowed to hold games with spectators.

Experts still urging vigilance

Although the number of COVID-19 cases are astonishingly low, experts familiar with the situation in the country endorse the government’s reporting. They say there seems to have been no explosive outbreak and the government measures are working.

Hasebe Futoshi, a professor at Nagasaki University's Institute of Tropical Medicine Vietnam Research Station, has been conducting research on infectious diseases together with an institute in Hanoi for many years. He says the Vietnamese government took strict measures before the outbreak and successfully contained community infections. He cites the quick establishment of a testing system and thorough isolation measures as the main factors.

Hasebe Futoshi, a professor at Nagasaki University

Regarding the testing, he points out that Vietnam has accumulated knowledge and technology from experts in Japan and other countries through the response to past infectious diseases, such as SARS and bird flu.

"Vietnam has no special test kits or drugs to treat the disease,” says Hasebe. “But the government decided to do what it had to do at an early stage and put that plan straight into practice."

He says the country's political system also plays a part, as it enables the authorities to impose restrictions on people with a degree of coercion. Hasebe says the fact that people mostly complied was a significant factor.

But he stresses the need to remain on the alert. He says although the country has succeeded in curbing the virus so far, the standard of healthcare is not very high, meaning it will struggle to cope if a large number of carriers enter the country.

Economy hit hard

Many people in Vietnam have praised the government's handling of the pandemic. A survey by major British research firm YouGov shows that more than 90 percent of Vietnamese say the government is doing well.

But the coronavirus has dealt a heavy blow to an economy that had been booming. Vietnam has maintained a high annual GDP growth rate of around 7% by actively attracting investment and tourists from China, Japan, South Korea and other countries. But the growth rate in the first quarter of this year was just 3.8%.

The outbreak seriously impacted Tourism, one of Vietnam’s main industries.)

Major pillars of the Vietnamese economy, including the garment industry, have seen a slump in orders from the US and Europe, resulting in plunging exports. And the number of inbound tourists in April decreased by 98% from the same month last year due to the tightened border controls. The government estimates the number of unemployed could reach 3.5 million.

Food and daily necessities are being distributed to people, mostly unemployed and elderly, who are struggling to make ends meet.

Prime minister promises action

In interviews with NHK and other international media, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the tough measures implemented by his government are paying off.

"We don't ignore people's lives by thinking only about the economy,” he says. “This is a very dangerous virus and no vaccine has been developed. Strict measures are important. Our success in quickly bringing the pandemic under control will help draw investors and tourists back to Vietnam."

Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnamese Prime Minister

Phuc has also vowed to support business operators by reducing taxes and offering other incentives.

Japan’s leaders are now considering easing entry bans on people from Vietnam, along with several other Asia-Pacific nations.

Authorities and researchers around the world are watching closely to see if Vietnam can continue to keep a lid on the pandemic as it reopens its economy.