“In this together”: Vietnam and New Zealand in the time of social distancing

One thing that’s striking about the examples being set by both Vietnam and New Zealand is how important social solidarity has been to successfully confronting this highly contagious disease.

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While most English language media, especially in North America, have been focused since mid-March on the numbers in regards to the ongoing health crisis in their own countries and the often inappropriate antics of the current American president, a number of success stories in the fight against the novel coronavirus are rarely remarked upon.

The two countries to be discussed here, Vietnam and New Zealand, are different in almost every conceivable way, but the actions of their governments and the emphasis of both on collective sacrifice can still provide lessons in responding to the current threat and the very real likelihood of it continuing to disrupt normal life for some time to come.

An argument can be made that both of these countries are succeeding in their efforts due to a level of confidence in government that no longer exists in most western countries. This lack of trust is especially evident in the United States, where ‘libertarianism’ and the dog eat dog capitalism it champions are being debunked in real time.

On the other hand, with millions of Americans now unemployed, most of the country’s billionaires are still seeing their fortunes balloon, showing it may be too soon to write off this kind of selfishness masquerading as a ‘philosophy’ just yet.

Vietnam: the importance of public trust

While most of us have heard about other successes in Asia, Vietnam, a country of 95 million, has no recorded deaths after reporting its first two cases of Covid 19 on January 23rd,, when a pair Chinese nationals were found to have the virus in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

I have a friend, Rashta, who has been in the country since March 15th and was able to report to me from Hoi An, a small city in the center of the country, where she’s been staying, most of the time in a government mandated lockdown, “They (authorities) mobilized so quickly. Lockdown wasn’t that hard. Cops came by to check on us weekly as well as all other hostels, resorts, hotels where there were still guests… In another day or year, I may not like that, but right now, it was reassuring! They have tabs on everyone! They put out articles on people who skipped out on quarantine getting the whole country in on finding these people. I obviously have never seen anything like this before but I can tell they have.”

This preparedness is probably not only a consequence of Vietnam’s one party system of government, but also the result of a number of health crises this century provoked by new pathogens like SARS and several outbreaks of Avian Flu, with small eruptions of the latter reported as recently as this month.

Another factor may be the country’s long battle for independence within the living memory of many of its citizens has created social bonds not found in countries that haven’t suffered such calamities and are more focused on the primacy of the individual, usually as a consumer.

While testing, a key factor in other early success stories like South Korea, has played an important role in Vietnam, as George Black explained last week in one of the few in depth reports I found looking at the country in a major magazine, “What is significant is the ratio of tests to confirmed cases, and that ratio in Vietnam is almost five times greater than in any other country. Testing was followed by strict contact tracing (including secondary contacts) for anyone known to be infected, immediate isolation followed by quarantining, and the prompt creation of a real-time database and two mobile apps by which people could record their health status and symptoms.”

In regards to testing, which she and more than 30 other foreigners staying in the same hostel received, Rashta told me, “We went in groups one day to a testing facility. Wow was that bad. The test I mean. I was a mess but it was necessary and I was happy to comply. The Vietnamese here are so nice, they felt terrible about it I could tell, but we had to do it. All foreigners who traveled in. We all tested negative; we found out 2 days later and were so happy.”

Though they were found not to have the illness, authorities continue to follow up with her and the other travelers staying at the same hostel and provide timely information as the country slowly begins to return to normal life, “We have an app we were asked to send daily declarations through… Having all the info on the cases was the best. They have about 39000 in quarantine. But only 270 were sick enough for hospital. They didn’t get overwhelmed, which is why the care was so good and they could actually treat the patients. Which means no deaths. They’re started to open up the provinces very slowly. Bars and restaurants have curfew, close at 9. People are starting to come out again and the streets are looking lively.”

While taking into account the country’s authoritarian form of government, as a country with limited resources, Vietnam has shown the world that readiness in terms of things like PPE (along with a public accustomed to wearing masks and practicing social distancing due to previous health crises) and using available testing capacity in the most efficient way can prepare a country for not just what is hoped will be a single wave of cases, but whatever might follow.

“Be strong. Be kind.” New Zealand’s progressive response

With just 17 deaths and numbers of new infections approaching zero, another country that’s been setting an example for the rest of the world, especially other representative democracies, is probably the only one that we could say has a truly progressive government in the English speaking world: New Zealand.

The country’s government claims it has now practically eliminated the virus after five weeks of lockdown measures much stricter than we’ve seen anywhere in North America. At the same time, with just one neighbor, a population of 5 million and less population density than most other developed nations, it’s important to note that the country started out in a much better position than much larger nations like the U.S. and UK. 

Still, one mistake made in other countries was concentrating on the short term economic damage as the crisis began to unfold; as Dr. Siouxie Wiles, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, told the BBC, “Key to New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 was that the prime minister and government visibly put people’s health first, whereas other countries which delayed imposed social distancing measures for fear of the economic damage are now having a much harder time controlling the virus.”

Adding to the effectiveness of this approach was the leadership shown by the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, whose emphasis on empathy for the suffering of both essential workers and sheltering citizens in official public briefings and more casual Facebook live chats contrasts greatly with the self aggrandizement of the current U.S. president.

An interesting aspect of the country’s plan for gradually easing shelter in place orders that could be useful elsewhere is the concept of letting citizens expand their own ‘social bubbles’ outside of their homes. This means allowing individual households, while still maintaining social distancing, to socialize with close family or friends within their neighborhoods, allowing for much needed human contact while still ensuring that tracing is easy in case of a new wave of infections.

One thing that’s striking about the examples being set by both Vietnam and New Zealand is how important social solidarity has been to successfully confront this highly contagious disease. As Van Jackson, a former Obama Pentagon official currently working as a university lecturer in New Zealand recently told NPR of the country’s approach, “If we’re all in this together, then we’re actually going to get through it better and faster.”

It probably wouldn’t make a difference, but someone should explain this simple idea to those putting others at risk by holding large public demonstrations demanding things like the ‘right’ to a haircut or to shop for non-essential items during a pandemic.

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