“Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.”
—Louis Pasteur (1822–1895)
As China grappled to contain the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the virus officially named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), in the first few months of 2020, Vietnam, which shares a border of 1281 kilometers and a high volume of trade with the northern giant [1
], was bracing itself for a high risk of cross-border infections. Within more than two months from January 23 when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Vietnam, there have been 239 confirmed cases with zero deaths [2
]. During the same period, the number of infections in China had skyrocketed from 600 people, with 17 deaths to 82,526 cases with 3330 deaths [3
Despite the differences in their domestic contexts, such abysmal contrast between the two neighbors could raise questions as to how Vietnam, a populous but less-resourced nation of nearly 100 million people, has managed to contain the spread of the new disease. This feat merits in-depth studies, especially in light of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11th [4
] and the chaotic self-quarantine and lockdown in various countries in Europe and America.
Vietnam was among the first countries to have confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the first two patients (both Chinese) detected on January 23 [5
]. This study identifies four periods of disease outbreak in Vietnam, namely (i) pre-January 23, (ii) between January 23 and February 26 when the first batch of sixteen patients were tested and treated till their discharge, (iii) between February 27 and March 5 when there was no new case and (iv) and post-March 6 when the 17th patient was detected and led a new wave of infections from incoming tourists and returning travelers [6
As Figure 1
shows, compared to other countries, the infection rate in Vietnam was evidently much lower than that in China, Italy, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. All these countries, except China, had the first cases announced in January [3
]. In the period from January 23 to February 25, the rise in cases in Vietnam was comparable to that in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. From late February to March 5, the situation in Vietnam appeared under control with no new cases while cases in South Korea and Italy soared to 5766 and 3089, respectively [3
]. From March 6 onward, the steep upward trend was seen in much of Europe and the United States, which as of March 30 was ranked first with 122,653 cases [3
While Vietnam also saw an uptick in new cases during March, its response to COVID-19, which is a combination of political readiness, timely communication and scientific journalism, offers valuable lessons in dealing with situations of epidemics on a state level. As of April 4, the number of COVID-19 infections in Vietnam was 239, in which 90 patients had recovered, 149 are being treated and no deaths recorded (See Figure 1
The study, though in its preliminary and subject to changes as the disease progresses, may nonetheless be instructive and helpful for other countries to better understand the role of policy response, social media and science journalism in maintaining public health. The case of Vietnam provides empirical evidence for assessing the efficacy of specific measures in fighting the pandemic.
2. Literature Review
Within the first three months of the new decade, the novel coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2—and the corresponding disease COVID-19—has spread from Wuhan city in China’s central province of Hubei to 201 other countries and territories. Over 1,123,024 people have been infected with over 59,140 lives lost as of April 4, 2020, according to the Global COVID-19 Tracker Map at John Hopkins University [7
]. The rapid contagion and severity of the new disease has prompted WHO to update its statement, from classifying the outbreak as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on January 30 to a “Pandemic” on March 11 [4
Given the urgency of this outbreak, the international academic community is mobilizing ways to accelerate the development of disease detection and intervention. A statement by the research-charity based Wellcome Trust in London has gathered more than 100 signatories to ensure access to data and research findings on the disease could better inform the public and save lives. These include leading publishers such as Springer Nature, Elsevier or Taylor and Francis as well as prestigious journals such as The Journal of the American Medical Association
, The British Medical Journal
, the Lancet
and New England Journal of Medicine
]. In these leading journals, editorials echoed a call for researchers to “keep sharing, stay open” [9
]. In Nature Medicine
, the editorial also stated that “communication, collaboration and cooperation can stop the 2019 coronavirus” [10
]. Editors in the leading medical journal BMJ asserted that “while scientists and public health professionals are working non-stop to contain the novel coronavirus, political scientists, economists and sociologists should also ready themselves for rapid response” [11
Complementing the clinical research on COVID-19 are studies that integrate social sciences in the outbreak response. Social sciences research is expected to produce rich and detailed insights into the social, behavioral and contextual aspects of the communities, societies and populations affected by infectious disease epidemics. The overarching aim is to bring together social sciences knowledge and biomedical understanding of the COVID-19 epidemic. Such connection would strengthen the response at international, regional, national and local levels to stop the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its social and economic impacts [12
Among countries affected by the pandemic, Vietnam, with its geographical proximity with China, faces a high likelihood of being severely affected by the spread of the disease. Moreover, although the Vietnamese healthcare system is under-resourced and has inherent weaknesses [13
], especially concerning health insurance and patient welfare [17
], the Vietnamese response to urgent situations has been commendable. It is likely that the Vietnamese government has learnt from its experiences in the past, especially in dealing with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. Vietnam’s success in the effective control of SARS for the first time in the world was achieved by “complete isolation of patients and implementation of nosocomial infection control from an early stage of epidemic” [19
]. The lesson is clear for Vietnam: early risk management requires taking adequate actions from the early stage of the disease.
The few studies on the outbreak in Vietnam have largely focused on the clinical aspects [20
], with the exception of [21
], which is on public risk perception. This piece analyzes the government’s response in terms of public health measures and policy implementation, as well as the mobilization of citizens’ collaboration in containing the disease have been very limited. This shall be a subtle call to action for researchers in Vietnamese social sciences.
3. Materials and Methods
This paper reviews Vietnamese policy response, news and science journalisms related to COVID-19 recently. Findings were derived from the analysis of a database of recent policies, articles and the credibility of data sources in Vietnam. Extensive coverage was given to the pandemic in both the official press and academic journals as well as through reports, briefs and presentations by members of concerned organizations (e.g., WHO).
A Python-powered web crawler engine was used to scan the data from online newspapers in Vietnam, such as Tuổi Trẻ, Thanh Niên, VnExpress or Kênh 14, to name a few. Then, the scanned data were saved into a news analysis system, which is developed by.NET Core, for storage and future analysis. The data structure contains three main components:
Projects & Data Sources: Settings for projects and news sources.
Data Logging: Log of the data collection process
News & Filters: Collected news with filters.
Examples of Python code are as follows (Figure 2
Using this system, we can set up sources and keywords. Furthermore, all tools and datasets will be maintained for future mining. We expect the dataset to keep growing over time, presenting us with new opportunities to extract deeper and more valuable insights.
In this article, using five keywords related to COVID-19, namely: covid, ncov, corona, viem phoi
(Vietnamese for pneumonia, which has some symptoms in common with COVID-19), sars-cov
, between January 9 and April 4, the tool has collected 14,952 news reports on the topic of concern, as presented in Table 1
Raw data were manually cleaned then categorized based on its characteristics, such as the timeline of COVID-19 cases, the timeline of international events regarding COVID-19, media reports and policy response from the Vietnamese government. Regarding the social media aspect, due to technical limitations, we could not scan information from Facebook. Thus, we used the remediation of social media on news outlets as a proxy to explore the social media aspect. Keywords that uniquely fit with the aspect, including ‘mạng xã hội’ (social media), ‘cư dân mạng’ (netizens), Facebook and Zalo, were used to search within the collected dataset. Furthermore, the data of the VN INDEX, which represents the changes in the Vietnamese stock market’s prices during the COVID-19 pandemic, was also added to complete the dataset. Finally, we store the cleaned data as a comprehensive dataset in excel files.
The dataset (updated as of April 4, 2020) is available at Open Science Framework (OSF) (URL: https://osf.io/4w9ef/
; DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/4W9EF) [22
]. Having organized the dataset, we then calculated descriptive statistics to illustrate how the Vietnamese government, news and science journalism respond to COVID-19.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
First of all, the early risk assessment and immediate action of the Vietnam government, as well as the seamless coordination between government and citizens, are some of the main contributors to the prompt and effective reaction vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic, which is caused by the corona virus officially named SARS-CoV-2, in Vietnam up till now. To date, Vietnam has managed to keep the situation under control in several regards. All patients who tested positive either have recovered or were recovering; there has been zero death. In terms of prevention, the Vietnamese government has maintained rather impressive cooperation with citizens and measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, systemic health status declarations and checks and self-quarantine have all been swiftly and smoothly implemented. Despite having made certain missteps or near-missteps as have been analyzed in the above sections, the government had been sensible enough to perceive warnings and recognize said mistakes.
The early policy response for preventive and treatment measures before the first case appearing in Vietnam is a highlight because Vietnam obtains a comparatively long shared borderline with China, and that was during the Tet holiday―the traditional new year of both Vietnam and China when the mobility rate was substantially high. The later simultaneous responses of the government presented through continuous directives of the Prime Minister according to the COVID-19 situation provide public health measures (school closure, public health quarantine, social distancing, etc.) and maintain the supply of fundamental goods for preventing the dissemination of the disease. Besides that, the effective control of the infected case number is also greatly influenced by the fluent coordination among governmental agencies. To achieve smooth national coordination during the harsh time, a whole-of-government pandemic prevention drill was held during the period when no newly infected cases were found. These efforts of Vietnam all met the suggestions by WHO for responding to community spread of COVID-19 [113
] and implied the high awareness and integration of Vietnam government, which are two out of five main factors of a resilient health system proposed by [114
]. Indeed, the government learned from its previous experience during the SARS 2003 epidemic and established a public health response mechanism that has proven to be effective to date.
Despite the optimistic results of the measures that have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, one must not deny the mistake that may have intensified the severe consequences of the second outbreak. The Ministry of Education and Training was responsible for lack of guidelines for students as well as indecisive policies regarding school shutdowns during the early phases of the pandemic. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism had also taken missteps in underestimating the spread of the diseases and falling lax in controlling cross-borders contamination. It highlights a certain disconnect between the declaration of the PM to prioritize the health of citizens above economic concerns: indeed, the Ministry had thought to take advantage of a global pandemic to promote tourism, and Vietnam had paid dearly.
As has been suggested by Leach, et al.
], governments often preferred to frame disease outbreaks as acute, thus relying on temporary, short-term measures of public intervention; an alternative to this framing would be to consider infectious diseases as endemic and long-present in the locality, thus adapting the entire community’s lifestyle to deal with it. As COVID-19 is a novel disease, the Vietnamese government has indeed responded to it as an epidemic outbreak; however, it could also be observed that the rapid response itself owed to the fact that Vietnam had had a history of dealing with epidemics and pandemics, namely SARS in 2003 and H5N1 flu in 2008; as well as A/H1N1 in 2009, the disease continued to make its reappearance in smaller outbreaks in years to come, such as in 2018 [116
]. For this reason, one may be able to have a positive outlook on Vietnam’s sustainability, at least in terms of efficient decision-making, in the continuing battle against the spread of COVID-19.
Sustainability in terms of resources, however, merited a closer look. In view of the phenomenon of pre-lockdown panic-buying, particularly reported in the United States, but also in certain other countries such as France or Germany, food insecurity and commodity shortage have become legitimate concerns. In certain circles on social media, certain pictures of Vietnam and the US have been posted alongside to highlight the contrast between the quite adequate food distribution in Vietnam as well as the free meals provided in quarantine hospitals on one hand, and the empty shelves of not only food but also sanitary products (toilet rolls, hand sanitizer, soap, etc.) due to hoarding in certain places in the United States on the other. In addition, one could not discuss resource drainage in the face of a pandemic without evoking labor. It goes without saying that the medical personnel was on the frontline, but other than medical professions, it should be noted that manual laborers who uphold the infrastructure, such as store staff, garbage collectors, deliverers, etc. This aspect of resource merits as much attention from governments and planning as any other.
With regard to resources required to sustain prevention measures, there are positive signs. it is worth noting that Vietnam is efficient enough in the production of test kits for both domestic use and export deals. This would be comparable to South Korea’s testing ability, which had been put to use with remarkable success in curbing the spread of the disease as the country became the world’s second-largest outbreak. [117
]. However, as the second outbreak continued to spread, the efficiency of current preventive methods grew questionable. The demand for capable healthcare infrastructure to accommodate new cases thus remained pressing. Considering the fact that Vietnamese central hospitals suffered from chronic overpopulation in yearly minor outbreaks, this issue should very much concern policymakers. A suggestion would be to immediately devise plans to restrict mobility between provinces―both to prevent disease spread and to avoid overloading central hospitals―as well as to upgrade and equip regional hospitals and encourage infected citizens to utilize medical facilities in their proximity.
Concerning communication and information dissemination in the face of the pandemic, we have observed a pattern in the official press. Journalists have indeed picked up on the vocabulary used by officials in public speeches. As such, articles reporting on measures against COVID-19 employed rhetoric often associated to wars, such as: “fight the enemy” (đánh giặc, in which the word giặc connotes the illegitimacy of said enemy, a nuance difficult to translate), “leave nobody behind” (không bỏ lại ai phía sau; as if in a battle march), “grand solidarity” (đại đoàn kết, alluding to the two Indochina wars against France and the US), etc. This sort of highly combative language was, in fact, not new, as it has been used in official narratives for a good number of national media campaigns. On the other hand, technical terminologies seemed to be much less abundant in Vietnamese media reports.
Influential political leaders and experienced teams of officials were quick to recognize the crisis and implemented rigorous strategies to address the emerging outbreak. The media response has also helped in promoting public awareness about the disease and how people can protect themselves and the communities around them. Science journalism equally played a crucial role in communicating effectively and prompt information to the public and global research communities.
The three pillars of society’s responses have contributed majorly to the situation of Vietnam, in which the community has responded quickly to a crisis and protect the interests of its citizens. It also reveals valuable lessons for other nations in the concurrent fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, namely an emphasis on mobilizing citizens’ awareness of disease prevention without spreading panic, via fostering genuine cooperation between government, civil society and private individuals.