Vijay Prashad: A tale of two countries: Vietnam and the US

  • Passengers wait in line to check in at Hanoi airport, Vietnam on Thursday, May 7. Vietnam on Thursday reported 17 new imported cases of COVID-19 as the country organizes more chartered flights bringing back stranded citizens home. AP

Published: 5/11/2020 2:56:22 PM

Not long ago, the government of Vietnam sent 450,000 units of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to the United States in an act of solidarity. This is the same country which was bombed beyond belief by the United States government, which used such harsh chemical weapons that the people remain scarred by it; Vietnam’s agriculture will not recover for generations.

 The COVID-19 disease has caused more than 4.13 million infections and has taken 283,000 lives. Vietnam, which shares an 870-mile border with China, saw its first case in late January when a man from Wuhan came to visit his son in Vietnam. Thus far, however, there have only been 288 confirmed infections and no deaths. This is not because of low testing or poor record-keeping. It is because Vietnam took a science-based approach to the virus and disease, something alien to the Trump administration.

Vietnam’s government, led by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, never minimized the threat of COVID-19. It immediately set up a national steering committee to coordinate action. Testing began at border points and epidemic control teams began to test the population and do contact tracing if they found anyone with the infection. Rather than lockdown the entire population, the epidemic teams studied the population, and isolated and treated those with symptoms and who tested positive for COVID-19; if there was a region with particularly high numbers, it was quarantined.

This multi-tier isolation system helped the authorities break the chain of infection. The Communist Party of Vietnam — very early — offered a motto, “fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy.”

The Ministry of Health posed a music video to explain the concept of physical distancing and hand washing; this video went viral on TikTok, where young people created a dance to go with it. The message was broadcast in days. Masks were mandated in public and alcohol-based hand sanitizers are found everywhere. Schools and religious sites were all immediately closed.

The government directed public sector units to produce necessary equipment, including PPEs and ventilators, as well as hand sanitizer and medicines. There was sufficient industrial capacity that could be directed to produce these goods without any worry about price gouging, since these are public sector enterprises. The private sector followed suit, and so did philanthropists who set up “Rice ATMs” to distribute food to those who had lost their incomes. The government set up food kitchens to feed the indigent.

Here’s how the United States failed. Alex Azar is the Health and Human Services Secretary in the Trump administration. He heard about the virus in the first week of January but did not tell Trump for two weeks. Both Trump and Azar behaved in an anti-science, hallucinatory way toward COVID-19.

On Jan. 28, Azar said that Americans would find that the virus “should not be an impact on their day-to-day life.” By then, the Vietnamese had already begun major preparations to contain the virus, including increasing capacity in medical institutions and for the production of necessary protective equipment. On the day that the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency — Jan. 30 — Trump said, with no evidence, “we think we have it very well under control.”

Right through January, February and March, Trump minimized the threat. His Twitter feed provides all the necessary evidence. On March 9, Trump likened the virus to the common flu; “Think about that!,” he wrote. Two days later, the WHO declared a global pandemic. On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency; this was months after Vietnam acted, six weeks after the WHO had declared a public emergency. These six weeks were lost. In the United States alone, 80,602 people have died thus far of the virus; remember, in Vietnam there are no fatalities.

Vijay Prashad, who lives in Northampton, was born and raised in Kolkata, India. He is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

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