From rice ATMs to music videos: the opportunities and challenges surrounding the COVID-19 disaster.
I walk out to the local market to get my week’s supplies: fruits, vegetables, groceries, toiletries, and other things I’ll need in the coming week. This used to be a normal routine, but now, everything seems different. When I walk out into the street, I cannot easily see how people are feeling, because all their faces are hidden by masks. People wear them while walking in the street; they wear them in the park doing their morning’s exercise; and they most certainly wear them down in the supermarket itself. During the dangerous period, traffic police would stop anybody not wearing a mask and ask them to put one on.
It's not just the masks that makes me feel strange. There's also the slow, careful walking. The awkwardness when eyes make contact; the pains taken to keep six feet apart from each other. And then, there are the numbers.
The numbers are everywhere: splashed across newspaper headlines, hovering on the side of the TV screen, broadcast through public radio, and even posted on online channels like Facebook and Zalo. Two cases in Vietnam. Five. Six. Seven. Nine. And over a hundred, with the first jump of 19 cases a day.
Back in the beginning, when news of the ‘novel coronavirus in China’ was just starting to come out, there was a mild panic running through the people here in Viet Nam. We heard about a strange virus disease occurring in China, and there were rumours about it everywhere: about how resourceful the virus was at spreading itself, and how severe the symptoms were once they took hold. I first thought it was a kind of flu like general influenza A: a fast-moving virus that easily causes complications in its host.
I was very confused about the strange new disease, and so were my family members and friends. Should we limit the time we venture outside the house? Or not? One of my friend’s children was unwell, but she was scared to take the child to hospital—because that, after all, is where all the infections are. Nobody seemed to have much information
Arguments were raging throughout society as well as among the policymakers. Should something be done? Are we putting too little effort into this? Or maybe, too much?
When I make a phone call, I hear announcements in place of ringing. My government makes use of the moment before my friend answers, to remind me how to stay safe and update me on what it’s doing.
After the initial confusing period, the government soon got its act together to provide a coherent narrative. Phone announcements are only one of the ways they make an effort to reach out to citizens. As soon as they receive information, it is immediately communicated to the public. Every phone number rings with government messages outlining the latest updates and prevention methods. In small villages with poor connectivity, special loudspeakers pitch in to fill the gap. And these aren’t just dry announcements either: the Ministry of Health actually enrolled pop composer Khắc Hưng and singers Min and Erik to adapt their hit song Ghen into a coronavirus awareness message. Called Ghen Cô Vy, a play on the virus’ then-official name nCoV, it featured an outline of where the virus came from and how to prevent it from spreading.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the government of Viet Nam had started preparing for the virus long before it hit the country—and not just with music videos. When the World Health Organisation and the Chinese authorities said there was no “clear evidence” for human-to-human transmission, our government was already starting to prepare for a possible pandemic.
By early January, the Hanoi International Airport was temperature-screening passengers from Wuhan. When the first case appeared in Viet Nam, they shut down Wuhan flights completely.
What I like about our government is that its response was fast, and it issued early warnings even before cases had started to come up. The government judged the situation as serious from the beginning, and lost no time in preparing for the worst of the pandemic. They asked for help from all citizens, and also directed the army to pitch in. I think the transparency in information and early calls to action were the main reasons we could keep the country safe at a time when others had a long, hard fight ahead.
It makes me feel safe to know they’re watching out.
Each year, millions of tourists flock to the bay of Ha Long, the Descending Dragon. The place has a wonderful natural beauty, with lines of rock islands appearing on the most amazing fresh sea surface. Where you can stay on a travel ship and feel the nature surround, feel the fresh air chill on your skin. I especially love that feeling when I stay on the deck in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee. When I first came to the Ha Long pier, to start my travel to the bay, I was immediately struck by the crowded lines of people moving to their ship.
But when I visited Ha Long after the first COVID-19 wave in 2020, it was desolated.
I saw hardly any foreign guests there. The tour guides lost their jobs; restaurants cut off their staff; hotels and guest houses had to drop their service price while implementing costly hygiene protocols to keep their guests safe from the virus.
The pandemic impacted our economy dramatically. Even though Viet Nam went great lengths to cushion the worst of it, the disaster of the tourism business was unavoidable. Most tourist hotspots had to close for a long time, and many small businesses could not survive after that due to unstable investments such as a loan or renting contract. Many destinations were crowded by tourism in summer, a holiday season, became sparse places.
During the pandemic, many people took advantage of the situation to earn money in illicit ways. A common trick was to hoard masks without selling them, causing a shortage which then let them sell at exorbitant prices. Other, more shady, enterprises were advertising untested or invented vaccines, making a tidy profit by selling them to panicked people.
Many people were caught red-handed gathering regular medical masks, and then selling them as the special N95 antibacterial medical mask whose cost was four times higher.
Some drug stores stowed away their masks , waiting for a chance to fetch a higher price, all while the government was asking them to sell quickly to people who needed them. A leader of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also used the situation to cheat while buying the equipment needed for COVID-19 prevention.
While the pandemic has shown society’s ugly side, there were also many doing their best to help. Special attention was given to people with low income and savings to get through this rough period. Free food and clothes were distributed to people who lost their jobs—as well as to those in deep poverty, to whom the pandemic would have been the last straw over their already strained situation.
Many restaurants started giving free meals to poor people, or volunteered to cook for the government’s quarantine areas.
PHGLock, the company behind the smart electric locks you find in buildings and vending machines, was one of many that had to put its business on hold. But instead of shutting down stores, they continued work in a different way. With a few clever modifications, they converted one of their machines into a “rice ATM” that could supply food to people 24/7. People could come up to this rice ATM and simply press the button to get 1.5 kg of rice. As well as providing food, this automatic system reduced the risk of spreading the virus by eliminating the need for human contact.
After some days there were only people coming not only to take rice, but also others who put more rice into the machine to support this company and expand the help.
These actions have inspired people throughout the country, and gained a lot of popular support. This situation showed me that better preparation goes a long way in producing a better outcome, and that the power of solidarity is vital especially in difficulties. As a Vietnamese, I am proud of our society’s tradition of mutual support, and I think that good, kind, and supportive actions should always be shared with people for its wider effects.
I think of the pandemic as a wake-up call to prepare better for our future. COVID-19 showed me how interdependent we are. We all inhabit the same world, and we’re the ones who shape and create the spaces we live in. We need to stop and think; to learn about the upcoming forecasted problems and be ready for the upcoming challenges of our times.
Now is the time for us to give out a hand, and hold other hands tightly to go through any issues. And, to feel other hands, of everyone around us, holding tightly back.