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Published: September 9th 2021
Here is the text of an article from The Guardian newspaper, September 8th
2021, followed by my own commentary on the prevailing Covid situation in Vietnam: ‘Hunger was something we read about’: lockdown leaves Vietnam’s poor without food (Vietnam was a Covid success story but the latest lockdown, with people unable to leave the house even for food, is leaving tens of thousands hungry) When the strictest lockdown to date was imposed in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Thi Hao*, a factory worker, was told that the government would keep her and her family well fed – but for two months they have eaten little more than rice and fish sauce. She was put on unpaid leave from her job in July, while her husband, a construction worker, has not worked for months. They are behind on their rent, with another payment due soon. “I’m trying to hold on for as long as possible but I don’t know what will come next,” she says. “I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words. I want to ask why there’s been no support. “The government said they would send help to people like me but
there’s been nothing,” she says. “Everyone living around me is hanging on by a thread.” Tran is not alone. Vietnam’s biggest city is under a tough lockdown, with people not allowed to leave the house even for food. Current restrictions could last until 15 September, when the city has proposed resuming economic activity. Even before the stay at home order on 23 August, Tran, like millions of others, was falling into debt. The government promised to feed everyone and enlisted the military to help deliver supplies to those in need, but vast swaths of the population have received nothing. Last week, Vietnamese media reported that more than 100 people in one district had protested over the lack of help. Vietnam had been hailed as a global success story in tackling the pandemic. As countries around the world mourned their dead and imposed nationwide lockdowns, the Vietnamese government kept the virus at bay by relying on strict quarantine measures, contact tracing and localised lockdowns. By early May, Vietnam had recorded under 4,000 infections and 35 deaths. Now, the Delta variant is causing chaos in Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring provinces. The past month has seen 299,429 new cases and 9,758 deaths in the country. In Ho Chi Minh City, the number of deaths accounts for 4.2%!o(MISSING)f recorded cases; more than 200 people die and 5,000 new cases are reported daily in the city. The neighbouring province of Binh Duong is seeing similar numbers. As tighter restrictions have been gradually introduced since the beginning of June, it is the poor who have been hit the hardest. Factories and markets were ordered to close, and with them went thousands of jobs. Taxi drivers, street food vendors, factory and construction workers who were already near the poverty line have been unable to make money for months and are trapped in precarious and crowded housing in Covid hotspots. Official statistics state that 3-4 million people in Ho Chi Minh City alone have plunged into financial difficulty due to the pandemic. Civil society organisations are being flooded with tens of thousands of requests for food every day and cannot cope with demand. Food Bank Vietnam, a social enterprise run by Nguyen Tuan Khoi, who also has his own business, is supporting 10,000 people a day. Its website and social media channels get twice or three times as many requests. Numbers started to increase last month, but they have shot up in the past two weeks, says Nguyen. “This pandemic has affected people’s resilience. The complete lockdown has caused disruption to food supply. We, and other charities, are facing difficulties in reaching people in need. The demand is huge.” In his 20 years of charitable work, he has never experienced anything like this. “The Vietnamese have been going through the most difficult days in the last few weeks,” he says. “I have never seen this amount of death and loss, and I thought I never would. Before the pandemic, we had hunger and poor people, but at least food was easy for many. I was born after the war, so difficulties around death and hunger were something we heard about and read in books. Now I can understand the hardship.” City authorities have, as of 26 August, reportedly provided support including 1.2-1.5m dong (about £40) and a bag of essential foods to more than 1.2 million people in difficulty. They are proposing spending an additional 9.2bn dong to support people in lockdown. Running parallel to the hunger crisis is a health system that has become overwhelmed. Hospitals are short-staffed, there is not enough medicine, and oxygen supplies are only just holding out. Social media is awash with stories of people calling for help and not getting it, and disturbing pictures and videos of crematorium queues and of people collapsed on the street. Dr Tran Hoang Dang Khoa, an intensive-care doctor in a hospital set up for the worst Covid cases, is responsible for 14 patients on each shift and has been left exhausted. The 700 beds are always full, he says, with every day bringing more cases; half of those he treats die. “Our health system wasn’t prepared for this, and we haven’t reached the peak,” he says. “We lack everything – staff, medication and ventilators – but I don’t know who to blame.” The current situation also reflects delays to Vietnam’s vaccination programme, according to Dr Nguyen Thu Anh, a public health expert with the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Hanoi. “The vaccine acceptance rate is high,” she says, “but we don’t have enough vaccines coming into the country. Regardless of the commitment from vaccine providers, as well as Covax, the actual number of vaccines arriving is lower than what was planned.” According to the health ministry, up to 1 September, Vietnam had rolled out 20m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Just 3.6%!o(MISSING)f the population of 75 million adults have received two jabs. In Ho Chi Minh City, with an estimated population of 10 to 13 million, 5.8 million adults have received their first dose and 337,134 have had both jabs. The programme was besieged by cumbersome bureaucracy, which resulted in delays, according to a statement from the ministry in June. Efforts are concentrating on Ho Chi Minh City, but as Nguyen says, the virus has already spread. “The problem is we are trying to allocate vaccines to Ho Chi Minh City. The number allocated to other provinces is quite small, so it’s another challenge.” Outside the major cities, healthcare provision and infrastructure is much worse, and doctors and academics fear the effect of Covid on communities there. Back in her 15 sq metre room in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran, her husband and eight-year-old son are stuck in a building housing hundreds of other factory workers. She is desperate to go back to work. The new school term is due to start online but she has no computer and, for now, her son’s education will have to take a back seat. “I can’t even begin to think about my son’s education right now,” she says. “I’m worried about getting our next meal and this month’s rent.” Across town, Nguyen Lam Ngoc Truc, 21, also needs to be able to earn money again. She lives in a slum on the riverbank with 30-40 other families. She sold street food to students but has not been able to work since June. Her mother, father and brother are also out of work. They have survived on handouts of rice and instant noodles from charities and neighbours. In her neighbourhood lives the city’s vast migrant population, many of whom are unregistered and therefore unaccounted for and invisible to the authorities. “The government should keep their promise when they said they would support people,” she says. “They should give food to everyone. No one is telling us what is going on.”
The above article paints a depressing picture of the effect that Covid has had on Vietnam and especially on its most populous city, Ho Chi Minh City.
I live in HCMC and can vouch for the veracity of the article. I am one of the lucky ones because I earn money by teaching English online. Food is not a problem, because my wife is able to order food from a friend in the shop at the basement of our apartment building. Moreover, both my wife and I have received our first vaccination of AstraZeneca.
Because of the lockdown and the nightly curfew (from 6pm until 6am), I venture out of the apartment only to withdraw money from the ATM downstairs. I spend my days indoors teaching online lessons, reading books (I got through ‘The Lord of the Rings
’ in five days), listening to music, playing online chess, watching movies and emailing friends. My wife feeds me, and I do physical exercises on the balcony. In short, I am comfortable.
Having said that, life is somewhat precarious because the entire city is shut down. This means we have to live with our malfunctioning TV. In ordinary times it would be fixed instantly, but because of the lockdown we cannot take it to a repair shop or ask a technician to come and mend it. I dread my precious laptop conking out. If that happened, my online teaching – my only source of money – would cease. In the present situation I cannot have my laptop fixed or buy a new one. I dread severe toothache, because all the dental surgeries are closed.
My main worries, though, are for other people – all the poor people who were on the breadline even when they were working and now have been unemployed for months. How do they live? How can they pay the rent and buy food?
My wife’s family is a case in point. The lucky ones are those who live in Tan Chau, in the Mekong Delta 5 hours away from HCMC, the epicentre of the pandemic. In Tan Chau there has been no strict lockdown, and the death toll from Covid has been small compared to HCMC. The unlucky ones are those living in Binh Duong, the industrial district to the north of HCMC, which has been severely affected by Covid. My wife’s eldest sister and her husband failed a recent Covid test and were sent to hospital. Because they have no money, they are not receiving medical treatment, only food. It seems the object of the exercise has been to isolate them, not to cure them. My wife showed me a picture of the hospital where they are confined, and it is depressing – a vast area chock-a-block with beds. Relatives are not allowed to visit. Thankfully, neither of them is very ill.
My wife’s other sister, who lives in Thu Duc District on the outskirts of HCMC, became very sick with Covid over a week ago and is in hospital on some sort of drip. She has no money, so I pay her medical expenses – an extortionate 1 million VND ($45) per day. One of the biggest problems with living in Vietnam is the cost of medical care. If you don’t have money, you cannot have an operation or get any sort of emergency treatment. If only she had made it back to Tan Chau at the beginning of the outbreak, she would probably not have got sick. Along with all the other people who wanted to leave Covid-cursed HCMC for the provinces, she was forced to remain because of the travel ban. There has been no public transport – buses, taxis or motorbikes – for a very long time.
The prognosis is bleak. Vietnam did not stockpile Covid vaccine early on, because Covid cases were so rare. However, the Delta variant has wrought havoc, and only a small percentage of the population has been vaccinated (as of September 8th
, 25 percent have received one jab, 4 percent two jabs). My native UK has quickly recovered from the initial Covid onslaught thanks to mass vaccination. It is going to be months before even 50 percent of the Vietnamese population (98 million) has been vaccinated just once. Therefore the daily death toll (434 yesterday, including 268 in HCMC) will continue unabated into the foreseeable future. Presumably the lockdown will also continue. How people are going to survive without massive government help is a mystery.
There is nothing I can do except roll with the punches. It’s funny how we human beings manage to adapt to new things. I used to miss gadding about in HCMC – meeting friends, eating in Indian restaurants, drinking craft beer, browsing in Fahasa bookshop – but have come to terms with the new norm. As I say, I am imprisoned but comfortable in my apartment and, being a bit of a hermit, have plenty of things to occupy me. I am earning money and using it to help my wife’s family. I pray that my wife’s relatives recover and that the current lockdown eases soon. However, that is wishful thinking because mass vaccination is a long way off.
After a relatively charmed life, now, at the age of 69, I am experiencing hardship for the first time. But my hardship is luxury compared to what literally millions of poor unemployed Vietnamese are going through.
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