It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: that Vietnam, a country of almost 100 million people neighboring China reported zero total COVID deaths, or that the government expects the country’s economy to grow by 5% during this massive global recession.
Oh, and last Sunday (14th of June), Vietnam had no new cases of coronavirus, essentially squashing the first wave of infections.
As virtually the entire world is reeling from the impact of the coronavirus, one country seems to be doing surprisingly well. Vietnam, a country led by a communist government, shares a border and deep economic links with China, When the outbreak first started in Wuhan, Vietnam looked like a prime candidate for an outbreak. The country has a few major urban centers, its medical system is not stellar, everything spelled ‘trouble’.
Which is why Vietnam set up a tight quarantine in mid-February. The country understood it lacked the resources to take the disease head-on, so it focused all its resources on prevention. The government deployed an impressive contact-tracing program, distributed regular press releases and announcements via phone, instructing people to wash their hands as frequently as possible.
“The government was very quick to establish strict protocols of contact tracing and isolation,” a local source tells ZME Science. “It was treated with all seriousness, and everyone seemed to understand that it was a threat. The Vietnamese government began to encourage more mask wearing, providing lots of public information, detailed information about cases, and announcing that quarantining and testing would be provided at no charge.”
Vietnam’s approach was initially called an overreaction, but it quickly became apparent that the country had succeeded where many others had failed. Aware of its precarious situation, Vietnam took decisive action, and it worked.
Economic prospects also look good. Vietnam was one of the first countries to re-open after the lockdown and is enjoying a secondary benefit as several large companies (including Apple) have moved manufacturing to Vietnam, to hedge against over-reliance on China.
While the IMF and World Bank prognosis are not as optimistic as Vietnam’s national economic prediction, they too predict growth for the East-Asian country.
With pragmatism and a steady hand, Vietnam seems to be emerging as a true coronavirus success story.
Not all is rosy in Vietnam
It should be said, however, that Vietnam is often considered a surveillance state. Citizens are monitored both online and offline, by “standing armies of neighborhood wardens and public security officers who keep constant watch over city blocks,” Bill Hayton and Tro Ly Ngheo write in Foreign Policy. This type of surveillance has also proven extremely effective in tackling the coronavirus outbreak.
However, there is also a darker side to this. Hundreds of people have reportedly been fined for undermining the “national unifying cause”, in some cases even for things such as social media posts. At least three people have been jailed for this type of blanket offense.
Vietnam has been the world’s fastest rising economy, after China, but its economic liberalization has not been accompanied by similar social reforms. Instead, despite remarkable economic progress, many of Vietnam’s social policies echo neighboring China’s.
However, unlike China, there is no evidence of a coronavirus cover-up. It seems that with its surveillance approach, Vietnam has genuinely had success in managing the pandemic.
More than one way to pandemic success
Vietnam’s story highlights that there is more than one way to keep the disease in check. We’ve seen a very democratic and open approach in places like Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, and Japan work wonders, but this shows that authoritarian states can also enjoy success.
The pandemic has also raised an intriguing correlation — or rather, the lack of one: there is no apparent connection between how democratic a country is and how well COVID has been kept in check, you have a mixed bag of results in all sides.
For every Germany and New Zealand, there’s a Sweden and UK, scrambling under the challenge — and if you think authoritarian countries are doing well, the four countries with the largest number of cases all have authoritarian leaders (India, Russia, Brazil, and the US).
There’s more than one approach that can work, and since there are success stories on different sides of the political spectrum, it just goes to show that there are indeed ways to control the disease if you take it seriously enough.
While the US, UK, and several developed economies fumbled their initial response to COVID-19, a group of Asian countries showed remarkable decisiveness and foresight. Their response has important lessons for the entire planet.
As the novel coronavirus started to spread out of China, it first hit the nearby states. Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam were three of likeliest places where the virus would spread — and so it did, in the initial phases. Yet after more than a month, all three countries have managed to suppress the outbreak, and while fears of a second wave are as valid as ever, their initial success holds valuable lessons..
The common traits of COVID-19 success
There was little hesitation in how the trio of countries reacted in dealing with the outbreak. Even at the risk of overreacting, officials took containment measures early on — exactly what epidemiologists recommend — and these measures paid off in reducing the initial number of cases.
“Finding cases and isolating them so they’re not transmitting forward—that’s the tried and true way of controlling an infectious disease outbreak, and when you analyze what was done in many Asian countries, you will find that at its core,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. told Dennis Thompson, a HealthyDay reporter.
While most of the world looked at China’s situation in expectation and disbelief (in part because the information coming from China was not always reliable), Vietnam took early action.
“They actually started preparing for this on Dec. 31. They were testing on Dec. 31,” said Ravina Kullar, an infectious diseases researcher and epidemiologist with Expert Stewardship Inc. in Newport Beach, California. “They were proactive, and that I think is a key to preventing epidemics. They were overly cautious, and that really benefited the country.”
In all countries, high-ranking officials started having daily briefs on recent developments, right from in the earliest days of the outbreak. This helped send a clear and transparent message, leaving no room for confusion: this is a serious situation, here’s what authorities are doing, here’s what individuals need to do to help.
This is in stark contrast to, for instance, the US and UK. In the former, Trump’s attempts to downplay the outbreak have turned against the country, and in the UK, the initial “herd immunity” misstep lost valuable time and sowed confusion among the population regarding the severity of the threat.
Test, test, test
Virtually all health officials are now recommending mass testing, not only as a way to diagnose the disease, but also to have an accurate image of how the infection is spreading.
In South Korea, COVID-19 initially spread through a Christian sect and the initial extent of the outbreak was unknown. The disease spread to hundreds of people before the government caught wind of what was happening.
In order to compensate for this, South Korea wasted no time and set up several testing mechanisms, including a network of testing “phone booths” where people could easily and quickly get tested for COVID-19.
“One person at a time can enter one side of this glass-walled booth, they grab a handset, and they are connected with a hospital worker standing on the other side of the glass,” Kullar said.
The healthcare worker uses a pair of rubber gloves set into the wall to swab the patient, without any risk of exposing themselves to the virus. This approach accelerated national testing, and the government also ensured quick test availability. Everyone can get tested in this manner.
“The hospital is able to tell the patient their results within seven minutes. We don’t have anything like that at all,” Kullar said. “They had this quickly put in place in most hospitals to get patients swabbed in a way where you don’t have direct contact with a health care worker.”
Another aspect in which these countries did not waiver was installing an early (and tight) quarantine.
Taiwan instituted border controls, quarantine orders, and school closures. In Vietnam, a country that lacks the economic resources of South Korea and Taiwan, the single-party state leveraged its large and well-organized military to enact a rigid quarantine. Severe measures were taken and anyone found sharing fake news and misinformation was fined — over 800 people have been fined so far.
Vietnam, a country of almost 100 million people, had a very limited testing capability and focused on tight containment to compensate.
“If you don’t have the diagnostic testing capacity, there may be a tendency to use very blunt tools like shelter-in-place orders, because you don’t know where the cases are and where they aren’t,” Adalja told HealthDay.
Meanwhile, South Korea was testing over 10,000 people per day during a time when the US did not have 10,000 tests in total. They have over 600 testing sites, for a country that’s seven times smaller than Texas. Within two weeks of the country’s development of its own official diagnostic tests, South Korea was producing 100,000 kits per day. It’s a striking comparison to the US, where weeks were wasted and the country is only now catching up.
These countries are now forced to re-evaluate their strategy as there is a very pressing risk of a second wave sweeping them again — after all, quarantine can’t be imposed forever, and there is a high likelihood of “importing” cases from other countries. But for now, at least, the first wave has been stopped, gaining valuable preparation time and a better chance of handing the outbreak in the future. The curve is flattened.
The darker side of suppression
South Korea, in particular, has become the “gold standard” in COVID-19 suppression. Without imposing the draconic measures of China, South Korea has managed to have even better results — even early media reports classed its response as exaggerate.
South Korea has flattened the curve and kept the epidemic under control, even without declaring a widespread quarantine or travel bans. They used a combination of transparent leadership, rapid response, public notifications, and hi-tech monitoring. All that deserves high praise.
But there is, nonetheless, one big caveat: this comes at a potential cost in civil liberties that other nations might not want to emulate.
South Korea’s “TRUST” strategy (“Transparency, Robust screening and quarantine, Unique but universally applicable testing, Strict control, and Treatment”) is intrusive.
South Korea imposed isolation and treatment for patients with mild or even no symptoms — which, on one hand, helped contain the outbreak and minimized hospital strain, but on the other hand, was imposed on the population forcefully.
South Korea has also revised laws to enable more aggressive contact-tracing, sparking concerns that the laws might still remain in act after the pandemic. The government was given the ability to access people’s credit card records, cellphone GPS data — an Orwellian scenario.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the ruling Communist Party encouraged people to spy on each other, using public distrust as a weapon to prevent people from breaking the quarantine.
South Korea is undoubtedly a strong democracy, ranking 23rd out of 167 countries, above the US. Taiwan is in the same category, ranking 33rd, while Vietnam is essentially not a democracy, ranking 136th.
In Vietnam, which is a single-party state, the lack of resources was compensated by decisive action and little concern for a public uproar. In South Korea and Taiwan, high-end technology was used to deploy much smoother surveillance — but surveillance it was, nonetheless. Authorities stress that the measures are only set to last for the duration of the pandemic, but can this statement really be trusted?
It’s hard to imagine South Korea and Taiwan descending into totalitarianism, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. What’s more, in some other countries, we are already seeing this effect.
In Hungary, parliament has voted to give PM Viktor Orban indefinite powers for an indefinite period, essentially making him the sole ruler of the country. It’s a chilling reminder that even in a developed country in an international alliance such as the European Union, democracy should not be taken for granted, and surveillance is often only a first step to dismantling democracy.
Which brings us to another important lesson.
The trilemma trade-off
Countries are faced with what is sometimes called a ‘trilemma’: a dilemma where you have 3 options, but you can only pick 2. In this case, the 3 options are:
focus on saving lives;
focus on supporting the economy;
ensure people’s freedoms and privacy.
South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan have focused on the first two. It’s easy to make a very compelling argument in this regard, at the temporary expense of the third. What is more important than saving lives and ensuring that we still have a functioning society?
But as Hungary’s case has shown us there is little guarantee that it is indeed a temporary concession.
South Korea and Taiwan deserve all the praise for implementing a quick and effective response system, with accessible alerts based on big data, and with technologically-savvy solutions.
Would Americans be happy or confident to offer similar powers to a President who has proudly called himself as nationalistic and has bragged about putting his political rivals in jail? Would most Germans, who squirm even at the thought of the country’s Nazi past, even consider such a thing? It’s hard to imagine.
There are solutions for rich and poorer countries alike. Of course, rich countries are in a better position to deal with the pandemic, but there are few guarantees — just look at the US.
The problem is balancing the solution in a way that is effective and fair.
Competent, well-intended leaders will look for ways to balance the situation, prioritizing saving lives, and using surveillance only as a tool to map the disease. Authoritarian leaders will place little value on saving lives, focusing as much as possible on promoting the economy, either by eroding democracy to expand their powers or by denying or minimizing the problem. It will be a test for our democracy as well as our healthcare systems and our economy.
This is a challenge unlike any other faced by mankind in peacetime. There are no clear-cut solutions and no benefits without tradeoffs. But this does not mean that solutions don’t exist.
The experience in Taiwan and South Korea show that democracies can respond effectively to an epidemic. There are positive examples and cautionary tales to be followed closely. It remains to be seen what other parts of the world will learn from these lessons.
A non-profit electric bus service has announced it will introduce at least 3,000 electric buses in the country in 2020.
Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup announced the creation of VinBus, which aims to replace existing public transit with electric buses. This would help reduce the noise and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation. The company, which has a capital of $42.88 million USD, will only operate electric buses.
The fact that this is happening in Vietnam, a country of almost 100 million inhabitants but with a GDP per capita of only $7,482 (compared to $59,531 for the US), is a remarkable step. Sure, 3,000 buses might not seem like all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an excellent start. It still dwarfs the largest US electric bus fleet. The fact that VinBus is a non-profit also means that all the extra profits will be reinvested back into the fleet, giving it the potential to grow very fast.
The buses will also be more modern and comfortable than existing buses, and so far, public reception has been encouraging.
For now, electric buses can make a much more substantial dent in global emissions than electric cars. They are also excellently suited for the technology, with small trips between fixed places being perfect for electric vehicles. A recent Bloomberg report found that “for every 1,000 electric buses on the road, 500 barrels of diesel are [saved up] each day.”
So far, China is by far the world’s largest market for electric buses, with a fleet of over 300,000 vehicles and growing fast, but the rest of the world is also trying to catch up. A number of American cities and universities have unveiled their electric bus fleets in recent years, but without healthy centralized policy, growth is bound to be slow.
We can only hope that Vietnam’s initiative is successful, catches on, and grows — inspiring other countries to take a similar route.
A “tactical” herbicide used by the US army during the Vietnam War is still affecting the environment and the people relying on it.
The Vietnam government has set up programs to reforest areas heavily affected by Agent Orange. You can clearly see the affected forest line here. Image credits: a_brinr.
“The soils, tropical climate, and network of canals and rivers of southern Vietnam have created one of the most diverse tropical jungles and intensely cultivated landscapes of Southeast Asia,” researchers start off in their study. But, as they continue explaining, it’s also one of the most war-torn areas in modern history. “This paradise has a long history of
numerous wars, foreign occupations, and most recently the Second Indochina War (aka the Vietnam War 1965-1972) which defoliated rain forests and ancient wetland mangroves and left behind contaminated soil and sediment hotspots.”
The Vietnam War was a brutal and unrestrained affair, costing the lives of over 1,000,000 soldiers, and even more civilian casualties. The number of serious injuries it inflicted lied in the millions, and to this day, the area is still recovering. The environment, researchers note, is also still recovering.
In order to be able to operate better in the luxuriant Vietnamese vegetation, the US military deployed a “tactical herbicide”, which became popularly known as Agent Orange. Over 20 million gallons (90 million liters) of Agent Orange were poured over Vietnam’s rainforests, wetlands, and croplands. It defoliated the vegetation, destroyed a significant part of the food crops, and exposed over 4 million people to the harmful effects of the herbicide.
The Vietnam government estimates that as many as 3 million people have suffered illnesses because of Agent Orange, and the Red Cross notes that over 1 million people were left disabled or suffering severe health issues due to exposure. Environmental damage was also huge. In a new study, researchers wanted to assess just how much damage Agent Orange is still causing.
“Existing Agent Orange and dioxin research is primarily medical in nature, focusing on the details of human exposure primarily through skin contact and long-term health effects on U.S. soldiers,” says Ken Olson, professor emeritus in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at University of Illinois and co-author on the article. “In this paper, we examine the short and long-term environmental effects on the Vietnamese natural resource base and how persistence of dioxin continues to affect soils, water, sediment, fish, aquatic species, the food supply, and Vietnamese health.”
US aircraft sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides across Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, persists today. Image credits: US Army Flight Operations Specialist 4 John Crivello in 1969.
Agent Orange is an equal mixture of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, both of which have been noted to be hazardous to human health at significant quantities. The first one was effectively banned in the ’80s, and the second one has been heavily regulated ever since. In theory, neither of the two can last for too long in nature — they tend to disintegrate after a few weeks when exposed to sunlight. However, when they were combined, they produced a dangerous by-product: dioxin TCDD, the most toxic of the dioxin family of chemicals. As it seeps into the soils and plants, TCDD can stick around for decades or even centuries.
Essentially, TCDD attaches itself to organic molecules and clay and clings on to them.
“The pathway begins with the U.S. military spraying in the 1960s, absorption by tree and shrub leaves, leaf drop to the soil surface (along with some direct contact of the spray with the soil), then attachment of the dioxin TCDD to soil organic matter and clay particles of the soil,” says Lois Wright Morton, also a study author.
The team found that TCDD moved around in surface runoff — as the sediment particles were moved around, TCDD went with them. Often, it settled into humid areas like wetlands, marshes, or lakes. From there, it ended up ingested by fish and shrimp, accumulated inside their tissues, and moved up the food chain. Although fishing is technically banned in contaminated areas, the bans have been difficult to enforce, and people still end up ingesting TCDD-contaminated fish. Even 50 years later, new generations are still suffering the effects of TCDD contamination, researchers say, with no clear end in sight.
Researchers mapped the 10 airbase sites where dioxin TCDD is believed to persist at the highest levels. Millions of Vietnamese live in adjacent cities and villages and are exposed to dangerous levels of contamination.
“The worst dioxin-contaminated site in Vietnam is Bien Hoa airbase, which is 30 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City,” Olson says. “After President Nixon ordered the U.S. military to stop spraying Agent Orange in 1970, this is the site where all the Agent Orange barrels remaining in Vietnam were collected. The barrels were processed and shipped to Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, where they were incinerated at sea in 1977.”
There are two main approaches to dealing with this contamination. The cheapest — and only one used at a large scale — is landfill storage. However, instead of truly dealing with the problem, this only offers temporary storage, delaying the contamination rather than eliminating it. Researchers suggest another approach: incineration.
It’s a lengthy and costly process, but incinerating contaminated sediments is the only realistic way of dealing with the contamination, researchers conclude.
“While incineration is the most expensive technology currently available, it would eliminate dioxin rather than temporarily store it in a landfill, and incineration would not require future maintenance or treatment. Incineration is one of the most commonly used technologies, having been used to treat soils at more than 150 superfund sites, and is a mature and tested technology,” the authors say.
This serves as yet another reminder of how devastating and long-lasting the consequences of modern war can be. Even 50 years later, the “tactical herbicide” is still doing its job, affecting Vietnam’s environment and human population.
Journal Reference: Kenneth Ray Olson, Lois Wright Morton. Long-Term Fate of Agent Orange and Dioxin TCDD Contaminated Soils and Sediments in Vietnam Hotspots. Open Journal of Soil Science, 2019; 09 (01): 1 DOI: 10.4236/ojss.2019.91001
An archaeological team from The Australian National University (ANU) has found evidence of an expansive trading network in Vietnam which operated from about 4,500 years ago up to until around 3,000 years ago.
Note: this picture is not part of the study in any way, shape, or form. It’s just a funny flavor pic I found online. Image credits Chris Jobling / Flickr.
A new paper reports that several settlements strewn about along the Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam were part of an ancient, sophisticated trade network. Large volumes of goods and materials were manufactured and shipped between them, often over distances of hundreds of kilometers. The discovery helps place early Vietnamese culture in a whole new light, and joins other findings that show ancient societies weren’t the simple, isolated, warring groupings of tribes we usually believe them to be — quite the opposite.
Rock for tat
The most striking discovery here isn’t that these people moved materials and goods around — we knew that already. What’s striking here is the scale of the operation, both in regards to the quantities produced and shipped, the huge length of routes, and the level of specialization involved. This latter factor, in particular, hints at a long-running trade operation. Specialized craftsmen need access to wider, stable markets to ensure there’s always someone buying their goods or such enterprises bog down.
The location of settlements that were part of the ancient trade route. Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.
“We knew some artefacts were being moved around but this shows evidence for a major trade network that also included specialist tool-makers and technological knowledge. It’s a whole different ball game,” said lead researcher Dr Catherine Frieman, Senior Lecturer in European Archaeology from ASU’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology, who specializes in ancient stone tools.
Dr Friedman made the discovery after she was asked to look at a cache of stone items unearthed at a site called Rach Nui in Southern Vietnam. There were even some sandstone grinding stones among the items, instruments which were used to fashion other tools such as stone axe heads. It struck Dr Frieman as odd to see them all the way here — since Rach Nui is nowhere near any sources of stone. In other words, people here had to import stone — and import a lot of it — to justify a local stone-fashioning industry. Even the sandstone used to fashion the grinding tool itself most likely came from a quarry some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in the Mekong Delta.
The grindstones also come in different sizes, shapes, and judging by the grooves left in them, different use patterns. This indicates that highly-specialized stone processing techniques were used in local manufacturing. These included differently-shaped grindstones to be used on various parts of an axe-head, for example, or grind surfaces of various coarseness, meant to either shape or polish the stones — meaning that these were a people who didn’t just make tools, they made refined, high-quality tools.
“This isn’t a case of people producing a couple of extra items on top of what they need. It’s a major operation. The Rach Nui region had no stone resources. So the people must have been importing the stone and working it to produce the artefacts,” she said.
“People were becoming experts in stone tool making even though they live no-where near the source of any stone.”
A schematic of the steps the team believes went into making the axes. It’s a much more complicated undertaking than you’d credit stone age communities with. Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.
Dr Phillip Piper, an expert in Vietnamese archaeology at the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology and paper co-author, is using the findings to map how people in Southeast Asia transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. According to him, there are numerous Neolithic sites in southern Vietnam that, despite being “relatively close together,” show “considerable variation in material culture, methods of settlement construction and subsistence.” This suggests that when communities started establishing permanent settlements throughout the delta and coastal regions, they also developed distinct social, cultural and economic systems.
These differences formed a ripe setting for trade to spring up, moving “materials and manufacturing ideas over quite long distances” between the different communities.
“Vietnam has an amazing archaeological record with a number of settlements and sites that provide significant information on the complex pathways from foraging to farming in the region” Dr Piper said.
All in all, the findings peer into the complexity of Neolithic trading networks in the area and offers a glimpse of how technological know-how flowed side-by-side with finished goods and materials along these trade routes.
The full paper “Rach Nui: ground stone technology in coastal Neolithic settlements of southern Vietnam” has been published in the journal Antiquity.