ince Directive 16 was issued on July 16, southern Vietnam has been transformed into a Covid-ravaged dystopia. HCMC is cordoned off and under curfew 12 hours day. There are checkpoints in every neighborhood. Military vehicles poured into central HCMC on August 19 to enforce a “hard lockdown.”
Vietnam’s response to last year’s wave of infections was touted internationally as a success. The Health Ministry created a happy tune to promote handwashing called “Jealous Coronovirus.” The video was featured on John Oliver’s show. Vietnamese took pride in having no Covid deaths at a time when other countries had suffered thousands.
Things have gotten grimmer since then. As of August 23, Vietnam has had over 8,000 Covid deaths, or 86 per million. On Statistica’s Covid death chart, Vietnam is pretty average at No. 110 out of 203 countries.
When the Delta scare hit, I was working as a teacher in Binh Duong Province, just outside HCMC. Two days before the directive was issued, I noticed people stocking up on food and medicine, so I did the same. Then came the checkpoints. To get through them, I got an antigen test for Covid for US$24.
The motorbike is the king of Vietnamese transportation. Vietnam had a mask mandate even before Directive 16, but enforcement was lax. Those who did wear a mask often pulled it down below their chins.
As the airport is inside the city limits, I needed police authorization and a Covid test result to catch my flight back to Seattle. The night before my flight, the taxi I had reserved realized they could not get through the cordon around Saigon and canceled. So I took my motorbike and left my luggage in Vietnam.
Ordinarily, Saigon has some of the scariest traffic in the world. Motorbikes can come at you from directions you didn’t think possible. But these days, Saigon is a ghost town. With few able to continue working, some 4.7 million out of population of 8.8 million are receiving emergency assistance.
While the public maintains its focus on Covid, Vietnam certainly has other health problems. As recently as 2017, there was a cholera outbreak in Ben Tre spread by contaminated ice tea made with bottled water.
The course an epidemic takes is easier to predict than you might think. There is a rule of thumb that has stood the test of time called Farr’s Law. It was derived by British scientist William Farr in 1830 based on his observations of smallpox.
According to Farr, epidemics arise for no apparent reason, increase at a geometric rate, and then decline at the same rate. On July 16, Vietnam had 24 Covid deaths. The epidemic peaked on August 13 with 527 deaths. This suggests that it will burn itself out sometime around mid-September, regardless of what precautions might be taken.
By Peter Kauffner