Vietnam Update August 27: Vaccine diplomacy with another health twist

As Vietnam continues to battle major Covid-19 outbreaks throughout the country, in which strict containment measures have shuttered economy activity, supply chains and of course people’s livelihoods, an interesting form of vaccine diplomacy occurred earlier this week with another health-related twist – Havana Syndrome. On Tuesday, there was a three hour delay in the flight departure of US Vice President Kamala Harris flying from Singapore to Hanoi due to a report of a “recent possible anomalous health incident” in Hanoi. The incident is being investigated by the US as possible cases of Havana Syndrome, the term used for a rash of mysterious health incidents that have afflicted hundreds of American and Canadian diplomats and intelligence personnel around the world, a phenomenon first reported in Havana in 2016. On Wednesday it was reported in international media that two US diplomats would be evacuated from Vietnam after “Havana Syndrome” incidents – presumably the cases that caused Harris’ flight delay.

Taking advantage of this delay and the expected announcement by Harris in Hanoi that the US would donate another one million Pfizer vaccines to Vietnam – Beijing rushed its envoy in Hanoi to meet with Vietnam’s prime minister to double the US offer with a pledge of 2 million vaccines, US and Chinese state media media reported. Vaccine diplomacy has been an important aspect of both Beijing’s and Washington’s foreign policies – particularly in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia where the two powers jostle for influence. Yet, the US clearly has the upper-hand in Vietnam where anti-Chinese sentiment runs high among the populace and western vaccines such as Pfizer are widely preferred. However, as the Delta variant continues its rapid spread in Vietnam, inflicting untold damage on the economy and the livelihoods of millions, at this stage it is a vaccination race – and the more the better.

Below is a further update on the Covid-19 situation in Vietnam in collaboration with Vietnam Weekly, a subscription-based publication covering current affairs in Vietnam.

Data update

At the start of the week, 343,973 domestic COVID-19 infections had been logged since April 27, and that number is now 392,885 – 194,786 of which are active. The seven-day national average is consistently moving up, while Ho Chi Minh City’s daily cases are on the upswing as well, with ongoing high rates of community infections.

Daily recoveries are moving up as well, which is welcome news, but still behind daily new infections by around 4,000 – except for yesterday, when an amazing 18,567 patients were cleared.

The death toll continues its inexorable climb as well, from 8,277 at the week’s start to 9,667, with HCMC accounting for the vast majority of deaths.

And, crucially, vaccinations remain sluggish as supply continues at a trickle. The last time over 500,000 doses were administered nationally in a single day was August 16 – in fact, 400,000 has only been cleared three times since then. 16.6% of the population has now received at least one shot, compared to 15.9% on Sunday (just 2.1% are fully vaccinated). Well over 70% of adults in HCMC have received their first shot.

Perhaps appropriately, the government’s official language is very war-like, with mentions of a “decisive battle,” homes as “fortresses” and residents as “soldiers.”

A new feature from Zalo, the popular messaging app, that helps people in difficult situations post what they need, saw over 60,000 instances of aid in its first 12 days.

In Ho Chi Minh City, army personnel are engaged in shopping missions for locked down residents, which has resulted in some truly delightful photos, such as this set from Tuoi Tre and, in this piece from Zing.

Also this week, hundreds of homeless people have been picked up by police and sent to shelters (or, if they test positive for COVID-19, quarantine, and if they test positive for drugs, a rehabilitation center).

The story linked above includes a number of gut-wrenching details; indeed local media have done a very good job of highlighting the horrific toll this outbreak and the ensuing restrictions are taking on people – and these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. (Tuoi Tre also ran a story on how migrants from ethnic minority communities are barely hanging on amid Hanoi’s lockdown.)

Looking ahead

Vietnam’s current fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly muddied the waters of the country’s economic health for the rest of this year. A recent World Bank report forecast that Vietnam’s GDP is still expected to grow by 4.8 percent in 2021 – certainly welcoming news yet we believe attaining this rate will be unlikely (it is difficult to see how Q3 growth will be positive at this point). Yet, economic fundamentals remain strong, inflation is under control, and foreign investors remain upbeat on Vietnam. In fact, newly-registered FDI in the first eight months of 2021 soared by 16.3 percent – investment led by Singapore.

We will end our update on an upbeat note with a quote from the World Bank’s acting director in Vietnam, Rahul Kitchlu:

“Whether Vietnam’s economy will rebound in the second half of 2021 will depend on the control of the current outbreak, the vaccine rollouts, and the efficiency of the fiscal measures to support affected business and households and stimulate the recovery… While downside risks have heightened, economic fundamentals remain solid in the country, and the economy could converge towards pre-pandemic GDP-growth rate of 6.5-7 per cent from 2022 onwards.”

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