AsianScientist (Apr. 16, 2021) – Throughout history, human civilization has encountered numerous infectious disease outbreaks and emerged with new understanding and lessons for the next one. The first use of quarantine is attributed to the time of the plague, which hit Europe from 1347, when incoming sailors were placed in isolation by officials of a Venetian-controlled city for 40 days, or quarantino in Italian.
Today, as we move closer to a full year since COVID-19 emerged from Wuhan, China, nations may be best served by drawing lessons from others’ actions in past pandemics as well as the current pandemic. In particular, countries in East Asia, many of which were disproportionately affected by the SARS epidemic in 2003, have fared relatively well through COVID-19.
Among the most successful and under-the-radar efforts have come out of Vietnam, which in the initial 100 days after reporting its first COVID-19 case recorded only 270 cases and no deaths. As of December 31, 2020, Vietnam has recorded a total of just over 1,400 cases and 35 deaths (see below), and is the only ASEAN economy predicted to grow and avoid a recession in 2020.
On paper, the odds appear to be stacked against Vietnam. While the country has experienced remarkable economic growth over the past few decades, it remains a low-middle-income country with limited resources—having spent just under US$130 on health per capita in 2017 compared to over US$2,600 in Singapore and over US$10,200 in the US, according to World Bank data.
Vietnam also has the fifteenth largest population globally and a large aging population. What’s more, it shares a 1,400-km northern border with China—the origin of several disease outbreaks in recent history. What can explain its success against COVID-19, and what can other nations learn from Vietnam’s experience?
So far, countries that have seen success against COVID-19 in the region have relied heavily on technological interventions like tracking apps or expensive mass testing. Vietnam’s strategy, on the other hand, has mainly been focused on the more low-cost route of strictly and effectively implementing tried-and-tested public health strategies.
Kidong Park, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative to Vietnam, attributes the country’s success to three main factors: an early and timely response; strong government leadership and vision coupled with a rapid mobilization of resources; and wide and accurate communication. The effectiveness of these concerted efforts was born through the culmination of years of investment in the country’s health infrastructure and preparedness strategies, and lessons learned from experience dealing with past public health crises.