The Reaction of the Government, Social Media and Citizens in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lesson from Vietnam
Article by Nguyen Thi Trang.
Abstract: In December 2019, novel coronavirus broke out in China; it was predicted that Vietnam would suffer serious infection rates during this pandemic. However, the country has written its own exceptional story with only 332 infected cases so far in its territory and no deaths. To explain this accomplishment, this article investigates the successful operation of Vietnam’s governmental apparatuses in predicting, preparing, and monitoring the situation. Second, it also highlights the role of social media in an anti-epidemic campaign. Finally, it describes the actions Vietnamese took to fight Covid-19. This topic is related to biosecurity, governmentality, and citizens, thus Foucault’s concepts of governmentality, biosecurity, and quarantine are explored as useful tools throughout the study.
In early 2020, Vietnam was predicted to suffer from severe infection rates from the novel coronavirus that broke out in Wuhan (China) because of the long border the country shares with Mainland China, the large and uncontrolled number of workers moving between the two countries, and the limitations of the national healthcare system (Fleming, 2020). Contrary to this prediction, the Vietnamese have written their own exceptional story. A report by WHO shows that up to June 9, 2020, there had been 7,039,918 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 404,397 deaths around the world, but Vietnam had only 332 cases on its territory without a single death (World Health Organization, 2020). Therefore, Vietnam emerged as one of the most successful countries in preventing and treating victims of Covid-19. Many studies show that the success of Vietnam comes from “early awareness of the pandemic, appropriate, drastic and people-centric measures, as well as public support” (Ankara, 2020). However, they noted that it is challenging to learn from the experience of Vietnam because of the difference between democratic and non-democratic regimes and because it is too late for other countries to carry out similar measures. However, the war between humans and the novel coronavirus has not finished; it is necessary to find effective response mechanisms when facing emergencies. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of governmentality, biosecurity, and quarantine, the article analyzes the procedures that the Vietnamese government has implemented from the central to the grassroots level. It also analyzes the control of the government over social media in the propaganda campaign and the behaviors of the Vietnamese in fighting the pandemic.
Governmentality, biosecurity, and quarantine
According to Foucault, governmentality is the formal and informal processes through which a range of agencies, programs, tactics, and techniques manage the human body as well as govern the population (Brownlie & Howson, 2006). Since the population and its health are governmentality’s target and subject, it has to regulate and control people through an apparatus of security. Mainly, it responds immediately to emergency health problems. As a result, responses to Covid-19 have been considered through the conduct of government and the prism of biosecurity.
Collier and Lakoff use the term biosecurity to denote “various technical and political intervention-efforts to secure health” that have been formulated in response to new or newly received pathogenic threats (Ingram, 2010). It concerns the anticipations of risks that do not yet exist or have not been fully formed. Thus, biosecurity requires constructing an increasingly intensive and extensive surveillance system to provide detection and notification or respond to events as early as possible. In short, questions of anticipation, preparedness, emergency, and pre-emption about any kind of epidemics are addressed in biosecurity. With biosecurity being spurred by biomedical alarm, media attention, and activist mobilization, emergency measures will be taken to contain epidemics. It will concern and categorize risk groups, as well as close down networks of transmission as soon as the pandemic is discovered (Ingram, 2010).
However, when an epidemic or pandemic outbreak is extremely severe, emergency quarantine plans will be implemented. In The Birth of Social Medicine, Foucault highlights that the quarantine plan represented a politico–medical ideal of a good sanitary organization (Foucault, 2001, p.146), in which all people must stay in their homes so as to be localized in a single place. That is to say, every family stays at home and, if possible, every person in his or her own room. The city is to be divided into districts placed under the responsibility of a specially designated person. This district head supervises inspectors whose job is to patrol all the streets by day or stand watch to verify that no one leaves his/her house (Foucault, 2001, p.145). This would not only create a system of compartmentalized and controlled surveillance in the city but would also allow for a collected system of information.
The operation and surveillance mechanism of Vietnam’s governmental apparatuses
As a single-party state, with large and well-organized military and security services (Fleming, 2020), Vietnam has been able to make decisions quickly and enact them promptly. High-ranking leaders of the Vietnamese government reached a consensus on the action, supervision, and management of different levels, ministries, and branches, as did the 5.2 million party members around the country (Nhân, 2019). As soon as the first Covid-19 cases in Vietnam were confirmed, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc declared, “fighting this epidemic means fighting an enemy” (Tuân, 2020) and launched a campaign called “Vietnam Leaves No One Behind” (Tùng, 2020). On January 30, 2020, he signed the Decision No. 170 / QD-TTG on establishing the National Steering Committee for prevention and control of the novel coronavirus, led by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam (Phủ, 2020).
From January 23 to February 13, 2020, Vietnam confirmed 16 people had been infected with Covid-19, all of whom had been infected in Wuhan, China. Then, the government decided to lock down Son Loi commune (Binh Xuyen district, Vinh Phuc province) of nearly 11,000 people after detecting Covid-19 there (Thọ, 2020). During this period, Vietnam strictly screened passengers from China at airports, seaports, and land crossings, followed by isolating passengers suspected of infection, and banning flights to Wuhan and other affected areas in China. At the same time, the government fully traced all people exposed to the virus and actively monitored those who came in direct as well as indirect contact with infected people. The government was prepared to accept some economic losses to protect the lives and health of the people and requested the Ministry of Health to introduce centers for the treatment of Covid-19. Likewise, local governments also disinfected whole areas and provided masks, antibacterial soap, and disinfectants for inhabitants. More importantly, the Vietnamese government required local authorities to provide food and necessities to assist people who were isolated.
After 21 days with no new cases confirmed, on the evening of March 6, 2020, Hanoi announced another case (17th victim) who was infected in Italy and wrote a false medical declaration when she came back to Vietnam. Immediately, Hồng Ngọc private hospital and the entire Truc Bach Street (the patient’s residence) were blocked off and disinfected by the police, army, and civil defense (Cường, 2020; Lê, 2020). Infected patients were found on flights from England, France, and South Korea. On the evening of March 11, 2020, the WHO officially announced Covid-19 a pandemic. On March 16, 2020, the Vietnamese government asked all people to wear masks in public places. On March 18, 2020, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc decided to suspend the issuance of visas for foreigners entering Vietnam and restrict flights from epidemic areas. In this period, the number of infected cases had increased, but it was still easy to trace the patients’ origin of contraction.
Vietnam entered the third stage when the government declared two outbreaks in Bach Mai Hospital (Hanoi) (L.Anh, 2020) and Buddha Bar, Ho Chi Minh City (Hằng, 2020). However, the source of infection for both cases was not determined, leading to a high risk of infection in the community. Therefore, on March 31, 2020, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued Directive No. 16 which called for the implementation of urgent measures to prevent and combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The whole country carried out social distancing for 15 days (from April 1 to April 15). However, the government only required “lockdown” for non-essential services including karaoke, massage parlors, bars, discos, cinemas, and stadiums, whereas businesses selling essential goods were still allowed to operate (Hiếu, 2020).
After social distancing ended on April 15, the National Steering Committee discussed dividing provinces into three groups (high risk, risk, and low risk). For provinces and cities at levels of high risk and risk, the Prime Minister asked residents to continue to social distance until April 22, 2020 (Vũ, 2020). From April 23 to now, Vietnam has moved into a new stage with relaxed restrictive measures and restored socio-economic activities (Vũ, 2020).
During the battle against the pandemic, the Vietnamese government has applied a widespread system of public surveillance, helped along by a well-supplied, and generally respected military. Besides, they always have a strong team of party members, village heads, and militia in villages. They are the closest to and most understanding of local people. They also organize and manage all activities in their area. As a result, they not only are well aware of the number of inhabitants but also know precisely who return from abroad or are abroad. Besides, Vietnam has a strong culture of surveillance. For example, people will inform local authorities if they suspect their neighbors do not implement the government’s procedures. The close surveillance mainly keeps anyone from slipping through the net or evading regulations.
The Covid-19 Anti-Epidemic Campaign
Along with control and surveillance, the Vietnamese government explored social media as a useful tool for anti-pandemic messaging. Information about the “strange pneumonia” in Wuhan (China) appeared in Vietnamese state newspapers such as Báo Chính Phủ, Sức Khỏe và Đời Sống, Tuổi Trẻ, Thanh Niên, Nhân Dân, Vietnamnet and the Ministry of Health website from the beginning of January 2020. A report by the Ministry of Information and Communications said that from February 1 to May 30, 2020, approximately 560,048 news articles about Covid-19 were published (Bình, 2020). The news both increased public awareness about the pandemic and encouraged people to protect themselves. Also, social media was organized in various forms like newspapers, panels, posters, and music to attract the attention of the public.
Besides, each stage of the novel coronavirus was detailed on the official Ministry of Health website so that people could better understand the disease. With the support of telecom businesses, regular SMS messages from the Prime Minister, Ministry of Health, and National Steering Committee were sent to all phones to tell people what they could do to protect themselves (P. Nguyên, 2020). In many localities, especially in mountainous areas and areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, the campaign was conducted in ethnic languages to help ethnic groups understand the pandemic. Social networks like Facebook, Zalo, Gapo, and Lotus also joined the campaign to give quick and accurate updates to users. Slogans like “Stand still when the country needs it” or “Staying home is patriotic” have helped people to abide by isolation rules (Tuyết, 2020). Even now, as Vietnam has entered a “new normal” state, the ratio of news articles related to the Covid-19 epidemic still makes up 28 to 40% of total news (Bình, 2020). Thus, the press has played an essential role in propagating and guiding people to fight the epidemic.
The behavior of the citizens
The fight against Covid-19 in Vietnam has depended mainly on the consciousness, responsibility, and actions of the people. They have not only implemented the government’s directives and instructions but also allowed the government to use their hotels and motels as quarantine places. They have also donated to support the government and the healthcare system. In a short time, overseas Vietnamese agencies as well as units, organizations, enterprises, and individuals in Vietnam donated more than 1,900 billion VND to the Vietnamese government. The government used this donation money to purchase medical equipment and supplies, as well as essential items for the compatriots, cadres, and soldiers at quarantine places across the country. Also, the programs of “rice ATMs” and “free supermarkets” have helped many poor people through difficult times (TTXVN, 2020). Finally, many landlords have exempted or reduced rent for tenants. All these necessary actions have contributed directly to the success of the Vietnamese people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The rapid response, cooperation of different apparatuses, and the supervision mechanism of the Vietnamese government are the elements that have led to Vietnam’s success. During the past two months, this country has not recorded any cases of community infection, although infected cases have still increased due to the repatriation of Vietnamese citizens from abroad. This success has helped the Communist Party of Vietnam regain the trust of the people. A survey shows that 62% of Vietnamese believed the government had implemented appropriate measures that were neither too aggressive nor too relaxed, to control the Covid-19 pandemic (V. Nguyên, 2020). Moreover, the Vietnamese government also used the press and media as useful propaganda tools. Finally, the most important aspect in this war against Covid-19 has been the cooperation of the people. They have thoughtfully implemented the regulations of the government. In particular, the mechanism of mutual supervision has also been thoroughly exploited against the pandemic.
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