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How Vietnam’s authoritarian government succeeded at containing COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to spread across much of the world, but one country that set out to defeat it has apparently succeeded: Vietnam. Bordering China, where the virus originated, the similarly authoritarian country instituted mass quarantines and social distancing -- and as intended, the strict measures did flatten the curve of infection. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As cases of coronavirus continue to spike overseas, notably in Brazil and India, one nation from the outset sought to beat COVID-19, and has apparently succeeded, Vietnam.

    Bordering China, the similarly authoritarian country instituted mass quarantines and social distancing.

    And, as special correspondent Mike Cerre reports, they flattened the curve.

  • Mike Cerre:

    When China sneezes, Vietnam is the first to catch the cold, as the Vietnamese like to say. Given their shared border, the 2003 SARS virus outbreak spread from China to Vietnam first.

    With fewer than 1,000 ICU beds for its more than 90 million people, this time, Vietnam simply couldn't afford to let the coronavirus spread out of control and overrun its health care system.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control's representative in Hanoi is Dr. Matt Moore.

  • Matt Moore:

    The public here in Vietnam has really bought into this. They really feel shared ownership of the problem of COVID-19. And I think, again, it's because of those early successes, where the government was carrying out pretty strong measures that, for us in the West, we might consider them to be sort of draconian. But they were really effective.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Vietnam and the U.S. had their first COVID cases the same week at the end of January, but Vietnam's pandemic task force was operational in a week, instead of a month for its U.S. counterpart.

    Both countries issued air travel bans from China and abroad, but Vietnam also medically screened international arrivals, requiring 14-day self-quarantines and mandatory quarantines for those traced to anyone with symptoms or testing positive.

    Until it could ramp up its limited testing capacity, Vietnam targeted hot spots, quarantined those testing positive at medical facilities, and contact-traced those they had been in contact with. They were quarantined, usually at military sites, for two weeks or until they tested negative.

    Vietnam's shelter in place and social distancing restrictions were also more strictly enforced.

  • Todd Pollack:

    It takes a lot of human resources to track contacts of potential cases and control these clusters. And they did have the human resources to do that.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Dr. Todd Pollack heads-up the Harvard Medical School Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam. He and other Western medical advisers believe Vietnam's relatively low COVID numbers are generally backed up by what they observed throughout the crisis.

  • Todd Pollack:

    We can look at the number of patients admitted to the hospitals, because, in Vietnam, they have a policy to isolate all positive cases in health facilities. If it was hit with the thousands, ten thousands, hundreds of thousands of cases that are being seen in other countries, it also would be overwhelmed like other countries.

    But, at the current state, that's not the situation here.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The majority of them were treated at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases, which had extra capacity and supplies throughout the crisis, according to Dr. Thi Hai Ninh, head of internal medicine.

  • Thi Hai Ninh:

    Vietnam is a developing country, and our resources are limited. So, at the beginning of the pandemic, we tried to restrict the number of the patients.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Vietnam literally declared war on the coronavirus. The military was mobilized for health care missions, and their bases converted to mandatory quarantine sites.

    Its largest manufacturing companies converted to producing PPE and test kits, which they are now exporting to the U.S. A mobile app was created for updating COVID hot spot locations and their proximity. COVID got the full enemy treatment on Vietnam's ubiquitous propaganda billboards.

    Its pop stars banded together to help communicate critical hygiene messaging and rally the country for what was considered to be a personal health and national security threat.

  • Henry Nguyen:

    There is good medical care here. It's just that the, he availability of it, the volume of it is nowhere near a developed country. And because of that, I think, you know, the country and the people here in terms of its leadership and the people take these situations much more seriously.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Henry Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American businessman living in Ho Chi Minh City whom we profiled previously on the "NewsHour."

    As the owner of the local McDonald's restaurants and also having a U.S. medical degree, he believes cultural differences allowed the Vietnamese to be more accepting of stricter containment measures than Americans, despite Vietnam having fewer COVID cases.

  • Henry Nguyen:

    In the larger picture, maybe there is a little bit more of what I will call a sense of commonality in terms of togetherness here, that people say, this is the sacrifice I make for the better good of my family, my community, my city, my country.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Many attribute Vietnam's relative success to its more authoritarian style of government, which allowed for more aggressive and enforced containment measures that could be implemented without delay, public debate or the civil liberties and privacy issues Americans are guaranteed.

    Human rights critics fear the government took advantage of the crisis to further advance its public surveillance and online censorship agenda.

  • Todd Pollack:

    We shouldn't ignore the fact that the beliefs and the support of the population are so key in this kind of situation.

  • Mike Cerre:

    One of the first countries outside of China to start shutting down, Vietnam was one of the first to start reopening at the end of April, starting in areas that had gone 21 days without any new community spread COVID cases, as they continue to follow their so far successful COVID-19 containment strategy.

    I'm Mike Cerre for the "PBS NewsHour."

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