Vietnam spins virus crisis to win hearts and minds

                A man wearing a  face mask walks past a souvenir shop in Hanoi on February 28, 2020

Vietnam’s Communist Party is spining the Covid-19 crisis to win hearts and minds by touting its quick, effective and uncharacteristically transparent management of the viral outbreak.

While Vietnam’s confirmed cases have risen in recent days, mostly due to tourists arriving from Europe, the new epicenter of the global pandemic, Hanoi’s strict containment measures have conveyed a bunker spirit that has arguably united the communist-run country.

Indeed, Vietnam responded quicker than most Asian nations by shutting down travel to and from China in January, even as the virus outbreak coincided with Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year period when many people travel home to visit family and friends.

On March 9, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc suspended 15-day visa exemptions for tourists from many European nations. A week later, the Foreign Ministry announced a suspension of visas issued at all border crossings, including with China.

Phuc has been keen to convey a bunker mentality, employing war-like symbolism and appealing to Vietnamese notions of nationalism, which resonates with much of the public.

“Every business, every citizen, every residential area must be a fortress to prevent epidemics,” Phuc said in early March.

When the first Covid-19 cases were announced in Hanoi in January, it sparked a brief bout of panic shopping and confusion, said Hai Hong Nguyen, of the University of Queensland.

“However, after concrete actions were undertaken and speeches of the authorities, including business representatives, were delivered in the media, the situation was back to normal and under control,” he said.

Sources say that most Vietnamese are respecting the restrictions imposed on public gatherings, with bars, restaurants and other public places ordered to close in major cities until the end of the month.

The Transport Ministry said this week that it will hand out free face-masks to those without, after the government ordered all people in crowded places must wear protective masks.

The government has also earmarked US$1.1 billion for a stimulus package to help businesses stay afloat during the crisis. 

According to Hanoi, “phase one” of containment, stopping the spread of infected people from China, has been successful. “Phase two,” stopping the spread from Europe, has apparently been less effective.

Vietnam has confirmed 76 cases of the virus, ten of which were discovered on March 18, after authorities announced a surge of infections from overseas. There have been no reported Covid-19 related deaths in the country.

“So far the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus is functioning well, and the government is anticipating how to mitigate the impact of Covid-19,” said Hai Hong Nguyen, honorary researcher at Centre for Policy Futures at Australia’s University of Queensland.

“Prime Minister Phuc has been proactive in taking action” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“He has established a task force to oversee national, provincial and local levels. The government has gone into overdrive with an information campaign to advise citizens what actions they should take to retard the spread of the virus.”

Thayer added: “The military, which enjoys huge respect and trust by Vietnamese society, has been mobilized to assist with public health measures [through] medical specialists and the provision of quarantine facilities.”

Deputy prime ministers give public addresses on the nation’s Covid-19 situation at least once every two days, while heads of relevant departments hold regular press conferences broadcast on state-run television to update the public on government actions. 

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who heads the government’s steering committee managing the pandemic, is now hailed on social media as something of “a national hero,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

The public have also been appreciative of the efforts of Nguyen Duc Chung, the Hanoi city chairman, who has been front-and-center in the government’s responses and who is widely “seen as fit for the job,” he added.

While there is skepticism about the official number of cases, the Ministry of Health has been active in announcing new infections and providing sanitation guidance, said Michael Tatarski, a journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City.

The global health community agrees. Kidong Park, the Hanoi-based representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), has praised the government’s “proactiveness and consistency throughout the response.”

For example, Phuc said on March 13 that foreigners who receive coronavirus treatment would need to pay for medical services, a reaction to online commentators complaining about foreign nationals, including from wealthier European states, who receive free treatment at local taxpayers’ expense. Most confirmed Covid-19 in Vietnam, official data shows, have been foreign nationals mostly from Britain.

The Communist Party has also effectively spun the public narrative to its political advantage, analysts say. The government has also capitalized on a perceived human and even humorous touch after its “Ghen Co Vy” hand-washing song, a comical public health-promoting video, went viral over global social media.

In January, authorities warned that stiff punishments would be doled out to anyone who shared false information on social media after reportedly fake news spread about unreported coronavirus infections. Arrests have reportedly been made for posting false information on social media.

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