Vietnam relaxes virus restrictions as cases plateau

HANOI (AFP) – Vietnam eased social distancing measures yesterday, with experts pointing to a decisive response involving mass quarantines and expansive contact tracing for the apparent success in containing the coronavirus.

Despite a long and porous border with China, the Southeast Asian nation has recorded just 268 virus cases and zero deaths, according to official tallies.

Although the numbers tested for COVID-19 are relatively low and experts caution the authoritarian government’s Health Ministry is the sole source for the figures, they also said there is little reason to distrust them.

Vietnam was one of the first nations to ban flights to and from mainland China and in early February, when it had barely more than a dozen cases, villages with 10,000 people close to the nation’s capital were placed under quarantine.

There has also been aggressive contact tracing.

Motorists are seen at a traffic intersection in Hanoi, as Vietnam eased its nationwide social isolation effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. PHOTO: AFP

One 72-year-old Hanoi resident described how he and a team in his community had been tasked with zeroing in on any suspected cases, falling back on grassroots Communist party networks in charge of overseeing neighbourhoods.

“We go to each and every alley, knocking on each and every door,” Nguyen Trinh Thang told AFP.

“We follow the guidance from our government that ‘fighting the pandemic is like fighting our enemy’.”

Vietnam’s success in convincing the public to cooperate has been key, said the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Director Takeshi Kasai.

“They’re really doing their part,” he said, adding he believed around 80,000 people were placed under quarantine.

“I think that’s the reason why they were able to continue to keep the number (of infections) small.”

There are now almost no international flights arriving in Vietnam and the country has been under partial lockdown since the beginning of April.

The streets of Hanoi – normally flooded with motorbikes, tourists and vendors – have been virtually deserted, save those most in need queueing at so-called rice ATMs for handouts.

The strict controls have apparently paid off.

After reporting no new infections for the sixth consecutive day on Wednesday, the government said some shops and services will be allowed to re-open.

Yesterday, a few of the capital’s cafes had resumed service, although the streets were still fairly quiet.