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Vietnam: An outlier in the coronavirus epidemic and HE?

Director: UPDATES UPDATES Vietnam: An outlier in the coronavirus epidemic and HE?

Vietnam: An outlier in the coronavirus epidemic and HE?

As in many contemporary arenas and throughout its history, Vietnam has overcome steep odds.

Vietnam: An outlier in the coronavirus epidemic and HE?
Vietnam: An outlier in the coronavirus epidemic and HE?

The situation with COVID-19 is no different. As of 13 March, there were only 47 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the entire country and no deaths in a population of 97 million. Until the evening of 6 March, the number had remained at 16 since 13 February.

As if to underscore the unpredictable nature of this virus, there was a spate of new cases in the past week, some the result of contact with a young Vietnamese woman who was infected during a recent trip to Europe, including Italy, and others from passengers on the same flight from London to Hanoi, and other international flights. As a result, the original number of cases doubled in a span of just four days.

Remarkably, those were the first infections in the nation’s capital. With an estimated population of 8.1 million living in a space that covers 3,329 square kilometres, this translates into an average of 2,433 people per square kilometre, much higher in some parts of the city than others. Therein lies one of the government’s concerns.

Aside from population density, another risk factor that is a problem in other countries, including some with considerably more resources at their disposal than Vietnam, is the inability of the healthcare system to handle potentially large numbers of COVID-19 patients.

These are two of the challenges currently facing Vietnam, compelling reasons why the government remains vigilant and reacts with lightning speed to individual cases.

So far, so good, but the threat remains

As I wrote in a 6 February blog post that I continue to update, “So far, so good for Vietnam”. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently removed Vietnam from its list of areas experiencing widespread or sustained community transmission of COVID-19, with a Level 3 warning to “avoid non-essential travel”, including China, Iran, South Korea and a long list of European countries.

The US State Department travel advisory for Vietnam is currently at Level 1: Exercise normal precautions, “the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk”.

Vietnam has fared well so far because of the quick and effective measures taken by the government. In fact, planning for the epidemic began in mid-December, over a month before the first reported cases in Vietnam on 23 January, ie, a Chinese man traveling from Wuhan to visit his son in Vietnam. (Both were hospitalised the day before in Ho Chi Minh City and have since recovered.)

Around the same time, all flights to and from Wuhan, including tours, were cancelled. Less than two weeks later, most of the border gates in the northern province of Lang Son were closed. Another prudent step was to quarantine over 5,000 Chinese workers who returned to Vietnam after the Lunar New Year.

South Korea is also of particular concern because of the large numbers of Vietnamese students there (37,426 as of last year), many of whom want to come home, and workers, including over 4,000 in two COVID-19-affected areas, Daegu-Gyeongbuk. The country has the third highest number of infections outside of China.

Closer to home, the Vietnamese government has warned against panic buying and has taken action against businesses engaged in price gouging with high-demand items such as face masks. (One company was found to be manufacturing face masks using toilet paper.)

There was also an official crackdown on netizens, including famous singers and actors, who were caught using social media to spread misinformation about the virus outbreak. Thanks to extensive and accurate reporting in the media, plus the use of digital billboards in apartment buildings for public service announcements, for example, most people are generally well-informed about what COVID-19 is and what preventive measures they can take.

The Vietnam Ministry of Health even produced an animated music video public service announcement that has gone viral, with over 14.5 million views as of this writing.

The World Health Organization has praised the Vietnamese government, saying that the “swift response to the emergency was crucial in containing the crisis at the early stage”.

Daniel Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, also praised Vietnam for its quick action and its quarantine efforts. However, Vu Duc Dam, Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, noted that: “If fighting COVID-19 has been a war, then we have won the first round, but not the entire war because the situation can be very unpredictable.”

The economic toll

As in many countries, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the economy, especially the tourism industry and companies whose supply chain for raw materials and parts includes China. Regarding the former, 30% of all tourists in 2019 were from China.

International arrivals dropped 21.8% in February 2020, with the largest decrease coming from China (-62.4%) followed by South Korea (-16%). On the bright side, arrivals from Europe increased, including from Russia (19.4%), France (2.8%) and the UK (1.5%). That is likely to change with the rising number of cases in many European countries.

All in all, COVID-19 cost the industry US$7 billion in January and February, 22% of last year’s total, with a decrease in occupancy rates of 60-70%. Tourism contributes over 6% to the country’s GDP. Many hotels have temporarily laid off their staff and closed their doors until the situation improves. Vinpearl, a unit of Vingroup, Vietnam’s most valuable company, plans to close seven of its resorts and golf courses indefinitely.

Among Vietnam’s top import and export partners, China ranks first in the former (29%) and second in the latter (17%), while South Korea is second (24%) and fourth (7%), respectively. Japan, another East Asian country affected by a COVID-19 outbreak, ranks third in both categories at 8.5% and 8%.

COVID-19 and the education sector

In the spirit of erring on the side of caution, all schools remained closed after the Lunar New Year, substituting classroom with online instruction.

While high school students in Hanoi were supposed to return to class on 9 March, they were given another week off because of the outbreak over the weekend of 7 March. They were expected to return to school on 16 March, along with kindergarten, elementary and junior high (secondary) school students, but the return dates have once again been extended.

Ho Chi Minh City students are now expected to return to school on 6 April while their peers in Hanoi will be off until 23 March for high school students and 30 March for everyone else. In addition, vocational and university students will be off for the rest of March. Most institutions of higher education have also been closed since the Lunar New Year.

COVID-19 and Vietnamese student recruitment

As with other businesses, the student recruitment industry has slowed down with the cancellation and, in some cases, rescheduling of public events such as education fairs. Fewer foreign colleagues are visiting Vietnam these days because of institutional travel restrictions. At the same time, there has been an increase in online events, such as webinars, and other activities, such as advising.

Colleagues whose institutions have targeted Vietnam as a priority country should take this opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons by building or expanding their online presence through various types of digital marketing. There are more Vietnamese than ever online these days, especially young people, because of school and university closures.

As of January 2020, there were 68.17 million internet users in Vietnam, an increase of 10% over 2019. Internet penetration is a record 70%. Social media penetration, which means Facebook to a great extent (the top two apps are Facebook and Messenger), was not far behind at 67% with an increase of 9.6% from April 2019.

Needless to say, institutions that host Vietnamese students should also reassure concerned parents that their children are being well taken care of. You can be sure that these stories about COVID-19 in various host countries are being covered on a daily basis by the Vietnamese media and discussed on Facebook, online chat and elsewhere.

What they need most is accurate information delivered in a timely fashion to assuage fears and combat rumours. This also applies to the education consultants and agents who placed many of those students.

Other stories that Vietnamese students are sharing online and that are covered by high-traffic Vietnamese media outlets are related to racist incidents involving Asians or Asian Americans, who have become the targets of verbal abuse and assaults because of the association of COVID-19 with China and Asia. This is a real concern based on stories they’ve heard, their personal experiences and-or those of their classmates.

While COVID-19 has raised concerns about travel and quarantine, educational institutions that are either currently recruiting in Vietnam or planning to do so should rest assured that interest in overseas study remains high, along with the requisite ability to pay. (Two coronavirus-related caveats are that most students and parents are not focused on this right now, for obvious reasons, and some families are experiencing financial pain because of the overall business slowdown.)

Institutions simply need to adjust their recruitment strategy to what will hopefully be a temporary situation and maintain a long-term outlook.

While the war against the coronavirus is still raging and no one can predict the ultimate outcome, the fact remains that Vietnam has acquitted itself well so far. The ability to contain this highly contagious virus in a densely populated country that shares a long border with China and is fully integrated into the global economy is a landmark achievement, with credit going to the government, other entities and the people of Vietnam, all working together in pursuit of a common goal, to limit the spread of COVID-19.

(Source: Author: Mark A Ashwill)


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