To ensure that the ultimate goal of social distancing in HCMC for a long or even a very long time will be successful in addition to achieving economic targets, a more suitable and better prepared action plan is needed so as to help stabilize the people’s life and livelihoods. The key word of this plan would be “flexibility.”
The HCMC authorities are doing their utmost and taking the bull by the horns to fight the pandemic in addition to continuing production to try to achieve the dual goal. The city has experienced a long time of social distancing while its dwellers have been exhausted and many sections of the apparatus are about to reach their limit. However, the pandemic remains severe.
So far, nobody dares to affirm that after August 16, 2021, the current Covid-19 outbreak would be brought under control and social distancing measures removed, or else more lockdowns would be imposed. In this aspect, we are on the defensive side. However, we need a more suitable and carefully designed action plan to ensure the success of a long social distancing period plus the implementation of economic goals. Such a plan will stabilize the people’s life and livelihoods, which also helps them rest assured and the success of the dual goal—effectively fighting the coronavirus and keeping the economy alive.
One of the primary goals of all social policies is to keep livelihoods stable and retain the optimum social balance as good as it could.
Take a look inside…
The city’s leadership and its related agencies have made tremendous efforts. However, weaknesses are inevitable as has been acknowledged by the municipal Party secretary who also apologized to city-dwellers. Mistakes are for sure because we human beings have to face for the first time an invisible enemy capable of transforming itself into new forms all the time. The policies and measures implemented over the past few months were mostly situational and based on different localities on a case-by-case basis as we have had no experience in dealing with this unprecedented event.
Over the past weeks, services as well as goods production and distribution have shown incongruities. Supermarkets remain open but it is not easy to buy things there. Bakeries and groceries are closed. Residents are not allowed to leave their districts. Police officers are stationed at checkpoints set up at every big crossroads to keep people remaining in their own locations. In some cases, a person living on one side of a street is not allowed to cross it to buy something in a convenience store on the other side. As almost all traditional wet markets have been shut down, it is difficult for residents living in districts with a small number of supermarkets. All the strict regulations are to ensure the observance of Directive 16 on social distancing. Yet are there other options which can be effective in both fighting the pandemic and making life easier for the people?
Chemists at drugstores may know well that patients with chronic diseases—such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes—are desperately in need of medicines, but they are unable to go to hospitals to receive drugs. Yet pharmacies cannot sell the drugs needed by their customers.
The municipal authorities should seek consultation with sociologists and experts in community development to come up with measures that prevent the people’s livelihoods and daily activities from being completely disrupted. Only a set of strict principles should be given, which can be even more stringent than Directive 16+. Otherwise, the people may undertake their own initiatives to exchange goods and money in any way provided that it does not violate these strict rules.
There was a real story in which a bakery used a three-meter pole to give bread to buyers and receive payments. This way ensured the distance between them. However, the bakery was fined and had to be closed. The result was the residents in the area had no more bread to eat.
Shippers need to be vaccinated in the earliest time possible so that they can be allowed to work in wider quarters and the working time should be extended beyond the current schedules (effective only before 6p.m.). Under the present circumstance, shippers are the best and most effective bridge between households and other entities. Moreover, a shipper who is at work also means that around 30 families do not have to go out of house. HCMC has 68,000 professional shippers, and if they are not allowed to work as usual, the online trading channel will be paralyzed. Then goods at supermarkets cannot be delivered while hundreds of thousands of families are lacking food and necessities.
However, the force of shippers alone would not be enough to meet the demand from 13 million people living in HCMC. Therefore, it is necessary to set up groups that can do the jobs from mass organizations or volunteers. In addition, mobile food outlets on vans or trucks should be set up to bring food to every alley similar to the model in Bac Ninh or Bac Giang provinces.
The people should be allowed to create their own initiatives on the basis of Directive 16. Otherwise, they would feel so suffocated. Moreover, the municipal government should build plans to allow the resumption of trading activities and production to keep life going on although it will be on a small scale at first.
… and a look outside
So far, HCMC and its neighboring provinces—such as Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An—have learnt the bitter lessons of combining strengths to fight the pandemic. Following the first problems, the cooperation has been much better. Yet another issue has surfaced, that is the coordination among localities that are far from one another, for instance, the collaboration between the city and Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, Dak Lak and Lam Dong provinces in dealing with provincial migrants to HCMC who wish to return to their home provinces.
At the end of June, when Covid-19 infections in HCMC rose sharply to almost 1,000 cases a day, provincial authorities hesitated to receive returnees for fear that people coming back from infected areas might be a death wish as the pandemic would spread and treatment would be costly. Afterward, provincial leaders came to realize that receiving their own natives was both an act of sharing the burden HCMC had to shoulder and a moral obligation. Consequently, the returns were better organized. However, problems soon arose. Returnees went into a growing panic which prompted tens of thousands of people to pack their things and mount on motorbikes to go home despite distances of thousands of kilometers. These messy scenes were so heartrending.
Yet the risks on the bumpy road home are not as fearful as the changes in policies. Afraid that they could not receive long lines of returning people and, together with them, the danger of the pandemic, many provincial authorities declined to accept them. Returnees were in a dilemma as they could not either reach home or come back to the city.
If only the Government had been consistent with its policy, either keeping migrant workers in HCMC or allowing them to return to their home provinces. If only the HCMC authorities had proceeded with the support packages and the vaccination program for self-helped workers from the provinces before the start of the return. If only the HCMC authorities as an administrative institution had hired coaches or trains to transport returnees in organized departures. If only provincial authorities had adopted a more humanitarian viewpoint by accepting returnees first and arranging things later rather than thinking about possible consequences.
The key word: flexibility
In his very first speech delivered after he took the oath, and when working with related parties, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh always emphasized “flexibility.” He encouraged his subordinates to be flexible in the concrete context of the current legal framework.
Over recent weeks, many obstacles have been reported about officials on duty who did not know how to apply flexibly regulations in specific cases. There won’t be an administrative document that could cite all daily necessities because there are numerous of them. It would be a grave mistake, too, to assume that a document could list all “non-essential” goods, or in other words, goods which are banned or whose distribution is restricted.
It would also be meaningless if during this emergency, a council is set up to define what “essential” and “non-essential” commodities are. Bread, milk, sanitary napkins, bank notes, medicines and animal feed are not listed in documents and are not considered “essential” goods by some State management agencies and officials at checkpoints. However, they all are essential to groups of citizens who are sorely in need of them. For example, without animal feed for pigs and chickens, there will be no food for citizens, which will put economic growth at risk.
The core issue here is shippers and truck drivers must fully comply with pandemic regulations. If they do so, they should be allowed to pass checkpoints. To do this, the chief at each checkpoint has to be knowledgeable and responsible for what he or she does, and behave in humanitarian ways. From HCMC, people on motorbikes heading for Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Quang Binh were in fact violating pandemic regulations. However, law enforcement bodies on the way helped them by giving them food, water, fuel and assistance so that they could get home. That is really “flexible” compassion.
The above context may explain why lawmakers have recently entrusted the Government with autonomy and flexibility in fighting the pandemic. Being too strict and rigid may thwart the big cause.
By Dr. Nguyen Minh Hoa