There are interesting events occurring in Vietnam despite what was deemed to be a “world-class effort” in containing the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pathogen. The country is experiencing a spike that affects Hanoi’s standing in terms of health capacity versus economic recovery. Some argue that this is Vietnam’s fourth wave, but there is little hard evidence to suggest a mutation. Instead, surges of infections are occurring in clusters.
According to sources, after Vietnam was hit by a new wave more than five weeks ago, almost 6,000 community transmissions have been recorded across 40 of the country’s 63 cities and provinces, including manufacturing hubs and areas of the country where foreign tech giants are counting on a swift government response to the surge. The industrial hubs in Bac Giang and Bac Ninh provinces are experiencing clusters of infections. In addition, in Binh Duong province, an industrial hub that borders Ho Chi Minh City, social distancing measures were imposed in five towns in early June.
Experts doubt there is a Vietnam “hybrid” variant made up of the Alpha, Beta and Delta mutations first recorded in the UK, South Africa and India, respectively. World Health Organization (WHO) officials also insist there is no new variant in Vietnam. Still, Vietnamese scientists are investigating, with an answer expected in the next few weeks. But the country’s industrial hubs need to be up and running fast — they cannot be idle if the economic recovery is to continue.
Meanwhile, vaccination programs are subject to a number of factors in terms of efficiency of distribution. Officials in Hanoi want Vietnam to achieve herd immunity, but the current spike is making that possibility more difficult, offering a “laboratory sample” of what may occur in other countries with similar conditions. There is no doubt that the international community recognized Vietnam’s ability to contain the virus’s spread. Now, Hanoi, because of the spikes in high-tech housing clusters, hopes to avoid supply chain disruptions and is prioritizing workers for vaccine jabs.
Vietnam’s inoculation drive includes both the AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines, but the country trails the efforts of neighbors such as Cambodia and Laos. The vaccination programs in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are important for stability and trade relations between the three countries. Thailand, meanwhile, is undergoing its own recovery program.
The Vietnamese government is not only importing vaccines — it also plans to produce them. It is seeking 150 million doses to vaccinate about 75 percent of its population of 96.4 million. So far, only 2.9 million doses have been secured, despite Vietnamese health authorities reportedly obtaining more than 120 million doses — 38.8 million from the WHO, 31 million from Pfizer, 30 million from AstraZeneca, 20 million from Russia, and 5 million from Moderna. Hanoi has approved the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines and added Sinopharm to its list for emergency use. The country is to produce Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, starting soon. Under the deal, Vietnam’s Vabiotech will produce 5 million doses a month to make up for deficits.
Some Vietnamese reject the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine for cultural and historical reasons that are important to pay attention to. Culture plays a role in vaccine distribution in Vietnam due to ethnic issues. Chinese brands in Vietnam face issues because of the troubled relations between Beijing and Hanoi over the years. This cultural antipathy toward China stems from a centuries-long Chinese occupation that ended in the 10th century and the 1979 border war that Beijing started in response to Hanoi invading Cambodia a year earlier.
These sentiments continue because of the ongoing South China Sea territorial dispute. Moreover, China’s activities on the Mekong River have affected downstream countries, including Vietnam, in terms of water politics. Thus, Hanoi prefers to deal with other countries rather than its big northern neighbor.
A key meeting held on Monday was illustrative of attempts to work out the regional issues caused by the Vietnamese spike, as well as general progress against the pathogen and economic recovery efforts.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son met with his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonn in China’s Chongqing city. The bilateral session took place on the sidelines of the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China foreign ministers’ meeting and the sixth Lancang-Mekong Cooperation foreign ministers’ meeting. There were also meetings with officials from Laos, who are seeking to keep trade and political channels open between all three countries as they suffer simultaneously but recover at different rates.
Getting the Southeast Asian countries on the same COVID-19 recovery page is important. This week’s conferences and their results illustrate that the pathogen is helping to generate a new opening, or a refreshing of relations, between the countries. However, the distrust of Chinese geopolitical interests hangs over the current landscape.
Vietnam faces a prosperous future once the country recovers from COVID-19. A spike is always possible. Pre-emption is the key for health authorities, even in “first-class” Hanoi. No recovery program will be perfect.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former Advisor and Director of Research for a number of UAE institutions. Dr. Karasik was a Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, Middlesex University Dubai, and the University of Wollongong Dubai where he taught “Labor and Migration” and “Global Political Economy” at the graduate level. Dr. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. Throughout Dr. Karasik’s career, he has worked for numerous U.S. agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religio-political issues across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism. Dr. Karasik lived in the UAE for 10 years and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles.