Like many countries, Vietnam has faced the challenges brought about by the pandemic of COVID-19, and the subsequent contraction of the global economy. It is right to be wary of drawing too many inferences from international comparisons. However, it is hard not to look to Vietnam as an international success story in this area.
At the time of writing, Vietnam has recorded just 328 cases of COVID-19, no community transmission in 47 days and – most remarkably – no deaths. This is despite sharing a land border of over 1400km with China, and a population of over 90 million people.
At the end of April, following a relatively short ‘lockdown’, life in Vietnam began to go back to normal. Social distancing restrictions were lifted in the second week of May. Speaking to British Council Vietnam Director Donna McGowan, I was keen to gauge her observations on how Vietnam has responded to the health crisis. I asked her about the lessons that can be learnt, and what is likely to be important in UK-Vietnam relations as we assess the future.
‘Life is very much back to normal here,’ she says. ‘Our social isolation was pretty strict, and leaving home was permitted only to buy food, visit the doctor or go to the pharmacy. People were overwhelmingly observant. Maybe at the beginning, and perhaps towards the end of ‘lockdown’, there were some people who were a little less observant, particularly when the weather improved. However, once communications started to come regularly from the authorities, everybody engaged with that.’
What is clear from Donna’s experience is the combination of both the clarity and consistency of the messaging, and the efforts that were made to stay in touch with the general population.
‘Text messages were sent to every mobile phone on a daily basis. Some areas have community speaker systems, so the local people’s committee would issue daily announcements through them. The police would reinforce the messaging at a local level. The entire process was all very well-managed.’
She also highlights trust in the authorities as crucial to success. This seems to be in abundance in Vietnam, where people felt the scientists and the politicians were working together and communicating clearly. ‘The government here made statements, as well as set and enacted directives, pre, during and post ‘lockdown’ which the public followed.’
It has been hard for the educational institutions as schools and universities had been closed since the end of January. British Council research in Vietnam shows that 45 per cent of universities engaged in online teaching during COVID-19, although many lack the technical platforms and academic approach to provide this service. However, as a result, the Higher Education sector has recognised this as a focus for development. Many Vietnamese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are addressing this with UK HEIs as part of the British Council’s Higher Education Partnerships programme.
The role of arts and culture
There has been active engagement from the arts sector. Many artists have drawn inspiration from government propaganda posters of days gone by and reworked that style to foster community spirit in the fight against the pandemic. ‘Those posters have long been a way to get messages promoted, and it has been interesting to see that style revisited by different artists – well known and less well known,’ says Donna, also noting that the artistic community has rallied despite the challenges faced by artists.
‘To give more room for freedom of expression in Vietnam, one of our projects focuses on capacity building, policy advocacy and network strengthening for cultural and creative hubs across the country, so Vietnamese can benefit from the diversity of cultural expression. The hubs are influential with significant social media audiences and also promoted positive public messaging in support of the Government’s social media campaign #Stayhome.'
‘Beyond posters, there was a pop song and dance that went global too.'
'It’s been wonderful to see that diverse arts community in Vietnam really get behind the message. But in a way, it’s not so surprising –it’s important to have freedom of expression, diversity of cultural views, but at the end of the day this is something that protects the whole country, with everyone supporting each other. That was really powerful – that joined-up community approach.’
The impact on young people
I witnessed much of that community spirit when I was in Vietnam in early January for work on Next Generation, our research series focusing on young people, and exploring their needs and aspirations. I asked Donna how that section of the population was managing with the pandemic and the restrictions.
‘They’ve responded very positively, as have people of all ages. We have many young people working with us, including our teaching assistants. At the beginning of social isolation, many understandably preferred to stay at home, follow the recommendations, be with their families,’ says Donna.
To try and understand the effect of the pandemic on young East Asians’ intentions to engage internationally, the British Council has undertaken a series of perceptions surveys looking at how potential students were feeling about coming to the UK for study. Although the results for Vietnam are not yet fully analysed, it appears that young people are still interested in coming to the UK. However, because of the uncertainties around COVID-19, they don’t want to make any decisions right now. There is more detail about the survey of students in East Asia in this vlog from the International Education Services team.
Much has been made of how Vietnam has responded to the crisis. Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has noted that Hanoi was ‘quick off the mark’ in its version of ‘coronavirus diplomacy,’ donating medical supplies not only to its neighbours, Laos and Cambodia, but also to the US, UK, Russia and Germany and other EU countries
The Vietnamese media is positively supporting this ‘coronavirus diplomacy’, highlighting the successes of the country in battling COVID-19. While Donna recalls some initial negative and incredulous reporting of the UK’s response, she adds there has not been much blame or criticism of regarding other countries at all – including China.
What can we learn from Vietnam at this time? ‘Listen, learn, and emulate what those successful countries have done,’ says Donna. ‘When we look at the health system in Vietnam, whilst it’s not as developed as that of the UK, there has been significant learning from the SARS crisis of 2003, and clearly there was a plan in place. Restrictions were placed on those entering Vietnam and borders were closed at an early stage. People were traced, quarantined and tested. Communications to the wider public were clear. There was no confusion. We watched the virus go global, and many Governments appeared to respond too late and too inconsistently.’
Donna feels that cultural relations are absolutely crucial at this time.
‘This is a hugely important time for the work that we do. Our work in higher education, inclusive communities, creativity – these areas are so important, so highlighting the partnerships we’ve brokered, showcasing the UK’s excellence is vital.'
'That’s the beauty of the British Council, that we speak for the incredible educational and cultural assets of the UK, and we help develop lasting partnerships for the benefit of both countries. I’ve never felt more sure of the value of the British Council than at a time like this.’
Christine Wilson, Head of Research, British Council
Next Generation Vietnam will be published in August 2020.