The rooftop of an apartment block in central Hanoi seems like an odd space to host a marathon. But when Vietnam imposed aggressive restrictions on outdoor movement in response to the coronavirus, athlete Nguyên Tiên Dat was forced to adjust his track to the strict bounds of state-sanctioned exercise. As OneZero portal reports, last month, Dat became Vietnam’s first runner to complete a marathon by looping the 25-meter length of his rooftop terrace. Logging the 860 laps on Strava, a mobile app for tracking runs, Dat’s message to his Strava followers was to stay active — and stay at home.
Millions of Vietnamese citizens like Dat have made preventing the spread of COVID-19 a priority. It’s the result of a sweeping public education campaign that relied heavily on social media and state-controlled news to instill a sense of civic duty in combating the coronavirus. Vietnam’s response has been an underreported success: the communist country has logged 326 cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths, and experts say there is no evidence to suggest a systematic cover-up.
Other countries in the region have deployed high-tech interventions. Taiwan provides real-time, location-specific data to the public on face mask availability through a government API. The Chinese government uses facial recognition, geotagging, and thermal scanners to track infected individuals. Meanwhile, a close look at Vietnam’s response reveals a resourceful — and often troubling — mix of high-tech and low-tech measures. They illustrate how mass data collection can be deployed to contain a disease — and how it can go wrong.
One of the most effective tools Vietnam used to manage the spread of the coronavirus was public education, often deployed via popular social media channels.
In February, for example, Vietnam’s health ministry released the viral hand-washing song “Ghen Co Vy.” The song, which likens the virus to a jealous (“ghen”) opponent, spread preventative advice to millions. Dancer and choreographer Quang Đăng of Ho Chi Minh City used the song to create the #GhenCoVyChallenge video on TikTok, which features hand-washing dance moves and sparked a TikTok dance craze. The hashtag #GhenCoVyChallenge has 37.7 mio views and counting on the platform.
Propaganda-style posters invoked a wartime spirit showing how to wear masks correctly, and the state invested in multiple channels to consistently communicate the severity of the disease. Citizens received daily updates from the Ministry of Health via text message and Zalo, Vietnam’s most popular messaging app. Dr. Tran Tuan, a health care practitioner and public health researcher in Hanoi, tells OneZero that posts by influential Facebookers also played a key part in disseminating accurate information to the public.
Vietnam’s centralized communication apparatus was also critical for implementing nationwide programs. Early on, Vietnam focused on targeted testing and aggressive contact tracing, a tactic that helped it become the first country to have stopped the local transmission of SARS 17 years ago. Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who have come into contact with infected individuals.
In Vietnam, people identified via contact tracing are sorted into one of four tiers based on their exposure level. That determines how they are contained within a mass, centralized quarantine program. Each case is numbered, and anonymized details about each person’s travel history is published in local newspapers and on social media — a striking move given the country’s tough curbs on media freedom. Containment is enforced by a massive human task force composed of health professionals, civil servants, and public security personnel.
For instance, 300 personnel were involved in the contact-tracing campaign of “Patient 91,” a British pilot for Vietnam Airlines who attended Buddha Bar in Ho Chi Minh City in mid-March. Shortly after the man’s visit to the bar, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health alerted the public by text message and Zalo. These alerts were even translated for expatriates. Anyone who had visited the Buddha Bar during that 10-day period in March was asked to self-isolate immediately and contact their local authorities. People who had been in direct contact with him were tracked using surveillance footage and then taken to quarantine centers. The locations of all these centers were displayed on Zalo. At least 4K people were tested as a result of the “Buddha Bar cluster,” and 19 positive cases were identified.
Vietnam’s surveillance efforts rely on two smartphone apps, which are mandatory to download. The health ministry’s official coronavirus app, NCOVI, enables users to log their symptoms and voluntarily report suspected infections in their area, identifying hot spots. It also gives advice on whether to self-quarantine or go to the hospital. Infected and quarantined people must also download another free mobile app, SmartCity, which notifies the heads of households if a person travels 30 meters from their quarantine area. District authorities must also submit a list of self-isolating residents via the app.
Disease surveillance was no doubt effective in curbing Vietnam’s pandemic, but it came with a steep social cost.
The price for Vietnam’s relative success was its “draconian” restrictions, says Tuan Nguyen, an epidemiologist and principal research fellow at the University of New South Wales. “Those measures cannot be used in a democratic society,” Nguyen says. In Ho Chi Minh City, signs warn the public that any individuals found to have infected another will face criminal charges.
Serious concerns have been flagged over users’ data privacy and the consequences if it is breached. The identities of some infected patients have already leaked on social media, calling into question Vietnam’s ability to protect sensitive information. And the nationalist spirit that united citizens in their war on the coronavirus can easily turn, as demonstrated by social media attacks villainizing the potentially infected.
Vietnam’s long history of censoring online discussion over controversial events and clamping down on dissenters persisted through the pandemic. In April, the state introduced fines for the sharing of what it classes as coronavirus disinformation, raising concerns among human rights groups. The criminal penalty also extends to material promoting “reactionary ideas.” When one Vietnamese woman wrote a Facebook post mistakenly stating that COVID-19 had reached her community, the police immediately fined her and removed the post — when it had just a handful of likes. In April, Reuters reported that Vietnam’s state-owned telecom companies slowed traffic to Facebook to pressure the company to censor anti-state content — which Facebook eventually did.
The authoritarian state has also been accused of using its cyber capabilities to gain an advantage in its coronavirus response. FireEye, a US cybersecurity firm, revealed that “Vietnamese actors” APT32 hacked the Wuhan government from January through April to “collect intelligence” from the virus epicenter.
But despite the obvious shortcomings of Vietnam’s model, its success makes certain elements impossible to overlook.
Crucially, its response was shaped by the country’s past experiences in public health crises. After the SARS virus engulfed Asia in 2003, Vietnam strengthened its capacity for disease control and prevention with funding from the World Bank. When the country registered its first case of COVID-19 on January 23, the government immediately imposed border restrictions and quarantined tens of thousands in military-style camps. While many wealthier nations were weighing the health and economic consequences, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc established a ministerial task force, the National Steering Committee, to control the response from the outset.
Widespread cooperation from Vietnam’s citizens was also a key factor in its success. The outbreak offered the ruling party a unique opportunity to demonstrate transparency in its coordination with the public.
“Another critical factor to Vietnam’s success is the faith of people in the government’s strategy to handle the pandemic,” Viêt Tho Le, a senior BBC Vietnamese journalist, tells OneZero. “It sounds unusual because, in Vietnam, the government has failed to keep people’s faith due to its corruption.” Le points to “the tradition of solidarity of the Vietnamese people in history in the face of big enemies.” From top officials to community workers, those enforcing the rules repeat the same militaristic refrain: Chống dịch như chống giặc, which translates to “fight the pandemic like an enemy.”
Popular Facebook posts are swamped with pro-government sentiment. “Many social media posts say that no place is as safe as Vietnam,” explains Mai Truong, a political science researcher at the University of Arizona. “While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in an intensive care unit, the Vietnamese state media even published an article offering to give advice to his medical team,” Truong adds.
Vietnam was quick to shut down business operations across the country. “Vietnam took these steps even though it knew that doing so would place a heavy burden on the hospitality and tourism industries,” says Tuyen Vo, head of partnerships at the LIN Center for Community Development, an NGO based in Hanoi. Until very recently, Vietnam placed heavy restrictions on rice exports to guarantee its citizens food. In April, the country debuted the “rice ATM,” which provide free rice for laid-off workers. Locals queue six feet apart to collect rice from the dispensers, which operate around the clock.
Global crises are known to spark technological innovation, but they also create a disturbing acceptance of more invasive control measures. The ruling party has capitalized on the battle against the coronavirus to boost its legitimacy both at home and abroad as the country prepares for a reshuffling of national leadership at a congress early next year. Vietnam’s censorship apparatus has cracked down on attempts to undermine the narrative that only the state’s authoritarian system saved the country from the health crisis. As governments’ surveillance capabilities continue to develop, their place in our lives raises continual debates: Can they be justified on public health grounds? While Vietnam’s model is rife with issues, its success demonstrates how, by focusing on early risk assessment and creative communication, a nation can unite its government and its people to launch an incredibly effective fight against infectious disease. While the culture of surveillance bolstered by Vietnam’s one-party system is not to be condoned or celebrated, there’s no denying the effectiveness of the central elements of its decisive response.