Vietnam is a coronavirus success story. It has become one of the only countries in the world to “beat” COVID-19. At the time of writing, a mere 369 cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic, zero people have died from the virus, and Vietnam has been clear of community-based transmissions since April. For a country that borders China and has a population of 97 million people, this is a very impressive feat, especially seeing as though Vietnam never went into full lockdown.
With the borders remaining closed to tourists and strict quarantine measures still in place for returning nationals and ex-pats, life in Vietnam exists in a coronavirus-risk-free bubble away from the rest of the world.
Did Masks Help Keep Vietnam’s Death Toll at Zero?
Mask-wearing culture was prominent in many Asian countries long before this coronavirus outbreak. While the West argued about the effectiveness of masks and waited months before advising people to wear them, Vietnam effortlessly made something that was already a common courtesy, mandatory.
Locals and ex-pats alike were fined if found to be maskless in a public place and were denied entry to supermarkets and entertainment venues unless they were wearing a mask.
Although we are still learning about this novel coronavirus, evidence supporting the efficacy of masks is strong. Vietnam’s mandatory mask-wearing is undoubtedly at least one of the reasons why the country has had no COVID-19 related deaths.
Why you Should Wear a Mask
Masks slow down the transmission of the virus by limiting the spread of large droplets that are expelled from the mouths and noses of infected people, with or without symptoms. Asymptomatic people are able to unknowingly spread the virus to others, and that means that wearing a mask is a way of protecting others from yourself. Community-based transmission would reduce if 80% of US citizens made the conscientious decision to wear a mask.
In many states in the US, wearing a mask is a “recommendation” that has yet to be strictly enforced. However, statistics from Vietnam should be enough to encourage anyone to wear a mask in public where social distancing is not possible.
What Else did Vietnam do to Prevent COVID-19 Deaths?
Masks aren’t the only thing that can be attributed to Vietnam’s coronavirus success. Let’s take a look at some of the other factors in play.
Vietnam’s fast-acting strategies were seen as an overreaction by some at the time. In hindsight, it’s clear that the government’s drastic action was sensible. Dr. Todd Pollack of Harvard's Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam in Hanoi said, “when you're dealing with these kinds of unknown novel potentially dangerous pathogens, it's better to overreact.”
An emergency plan that involved screening arrivals from Wuhan at the airports was in place in early January, weeks before the first confirmed case in Vietnam.
One of the reasons why Vietnam responded to the threat of coronavirus so early, is that the devastating effects of the 2003 SARS epidemic, among other outbreaks, is an all-too-recent memory.
Professor Guy Thwaites, director of Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) in Ho Chi Minh City, said, “this is a country that has dealt with a lot of outbreaks in the past.
“The government and population are very, very used to dealing with infectious diseases and are respectful of them, probably far more so than wealthier countries. They know how to respond to these things.”
In mid-march, after a “super-spreader” carried the coronavirus with them on a plane from London to Vietnam, stricter quarantine measures were enforced. Anyone entering the country after this date was required to complete mandatory quarantine in specialized units for at least two weeks, or until they produced negative tests.
Widespread Tracing and Testing
Vietnam’s intense tracing worked, and widespread testing has set itself apart from most other countries.
The names of infected people along with exact locations of where they had recently been were frequently broadcasted to the country. Anyone found to have been in contact with an infected person was then put into quarantine, and everyone in quarantine was tested regularly.
Professor Thwaites said “quarantine on such a vast scale is key, as evidence mounts that as many as half of all infected people are asymptomatic.
“It's clear that 40% of Vietnam's confirmed cases would have had no idea they had the virus had they not been tested. If you have that level of asymptomatic carriers, the only thing you can do to control it is what Vietnam did. Unless you were locking those people up, they would just be wandering around spreading the infection."
It wasn’t just in quarantine that people were tested. Officials were sent out to people’s homes to test them if they had entered the country after the beginning of March. Temperature checks were also in place at supermarkets, restaurants, malls, and other checkpoints across the country. A high temperature would have resulted in a stint in a quarantine facility. They really did take this outbreak seriously.
Vietnamese culture is predominately based on respect. Respect for family and community is the foundation of Vietnamese society. Whereas on the other hand, the US is said by some to be an individualistic society.
For example, the Vietnamese government’s strategies were met with widespread support, and rule-breaking was never common. It was in the Vietnamese people’s interests to keep each other safe.
While people in America were protesting their right to refuse to wear a mask, Vietnamese people were publicly outraged by any foreigner or local person who also refused to wear a mask, although this number was comparatively much lower.