Experts and Kiwis with Vietnam connections are calling on the global community to help get vaccines to the Southeast Asian country, as it battles the fourth wave of Covid-19.
Like New Zealand, Vietnam was held up as a poster child from early in the pandemic. But as the country battles rising death rates in the fourth wave of Covid-19 the race is on to get vaccines into arms.
Vietnam has recorded almost 850,000 cases and more than 20,000 deaths among its population of 98 million people. Almost all of these have been since April this year.
New Zealand teacher Dhalgren Attwell saw firsthand the lengths the communist country, with authoritarian rule, went to in the hope of stamping out Delta.
Children in Viet Nam, January 14, 2021
Vietnam's government sent troops to Ho Chi Minh City to help deliver food and aid to households as it further tightened restrictions on people's movements in August.
Attwell and his partner moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019 and left the country the day before the hard lockdown was imposed in July this year.
The regime is benign until it isn’t, he said. Once the military was in the streets with machine guns, the dictatorship was on full display.
New Zealand and Vietnam were both applauded for eliminating community cases early in the pandemic.
Both reacted to cases with short, sharp lockdowns in 2020. But how the two countries implemented those lockdowns were vastly different, Attwell said.
“I would say the parallels stop at ‘both countries have experienced Covid-19’.”
Covid-19 cases were isolated by shutting down an apartment block or neighbourhood until everyone was cleared – much as had happened in China, across the northern border, last year.
But when Delta hit, the system couldn’t react quickly enough, and infected people were sent to military-run “recovery camps”. In more remote areas of the country, very few people had smartphones, which had an impact on communication and education.
A cleaner from Attwell’s private international school in Ho Chi Minh City was sent to one of the camps, and wasn’t allowed to leave for six weeks.
“The hardships that the Vietnamese people have suffered from being in the totalitarian country has not been conveyed,” he said.
A lot of people were living hand-to-mouth as day labourers. During the latest lockdown, people literally starved to death in their homes.
As Covid-19 becomes the disease of the unvaccinated, experts and NGOs are calling for rich countries like New Zealand to support the sharing of vaccines through the COVAX facility.
COVAX is a vaccine equity partnership between the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, which aims to procure and deliver 3 billion Covid-19 vaccines for 92 low and lower middle-income countries.
As the world’s largest procurer of vaccines, Unicef is the lead delivery partner of COVAX, working alongside civil society, vaccine manufacturers, and the World Bank.
The idea is to accelerate the development and manufacturing process of vaccines, and support vaccine rollouts with the right equipment and personnel. The focus of the initiative is protecting frontline health and social workers and ensuring other priority groups are vaccinated in order to prevent deaths keep health systems functioning.
UNICEF Staff checking 1.18 mil doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the cold store room of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology (NIHE) deliver to Viet Nam on 02 Aug 2021.
In April, the New Zealand Government pledged to share doses with COVAX, with a total contribution worth $17m. In June, the Government transferred its allocation of AstraZeneca doses to lower-income economies, including to six countries in the Pacific.
In one case, 30,000 unused doses transferred to Papua New Guinea were shipped to Vietnam before they expired.
Unicef country representative Rana Flowers said the Delta variant had ravaged Vietnam. It would take years to recover from the health, education and social effects, she said.
Children unable to attend school or access online learning had dropped out of school, leading to a rise in child labour and putting them at risk of trafficking.
Medical staff at the Immunization center at Hanoi Medical University holds the vaccine dose from COVAX
Nutrition had deteriorated as millions lost their source of income, and family harm incidents had skyrocketed as families were unable to leave their homes.
“We’ve seen those who were already in poverty move into deeper poverty, and those who were just above the poverty line have certainly now dropped into those multi-dimensions of poverty,” Flowers said.
Meanwhile, the country had battled floods and droughts, which further impacted access to clean water and sanitation.
Flowers said vaccinations were the way to recovery, but that would only work if everyone, in every country was reached.
UNICEF Representative Rana Flowers is awaiting for the COVID-19 vaccines to be offloaded from the cargo plane.
She described this as “an absolute essential moment”.
Flowers urged governments to transfer their excess vaccines to struggling countries, before looking to give booster shots. And those individuals who could donate to COVAX, should.
“Unless we are able to get vaccination rates to a certain level in every country, then we can’t open international travel; we can’t return to the norm that we’re all desiring.”
CodeHQ co-founder and former Vietnam refugee Mitchell Pham said what happened in other countries did matter to New Zealand.
“It’s not just about getting ourselves vaccinated. We’re part of a global village; we’re part of a global market; we’re part of a global supply chain,” Pham said.
As a country reliant on exporting, and the international talent pool, to support growth, expansion and innovation, New Zealand did not have the luxury of not caring, he said.
CodeHQ has about 40 staff based in Ho Chi Minh City, and while they were able to move online during the strict military-enforced lockdown, there were others who had fared much worse.
Vietnam is a manufacturing nation, with large factories for multinational companies like Nike and Samsung.
During the Delta lockdown, some factory workers were forced to choose between staying at the factories round-the-clock and keeping their jobs, or going home to their families and losing their source of income.
While this strict lockdown was lifted last week – in the hope to get the economy moving again – people were still not getting out and about due to a fear of community transmission, Pham said.
University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said the inequitable vaccine roll-out was “a global failure”.
Wiles said this “humanitarian disaster” was entirely avoidable.
“Our whole global Covid response has been such a disaster, and just shows how, instead of working collectively to protect everyone… the institutions that were in place to protect us, and advocate globally, have just been slammed,” she said.
“I guess what I really struggle with is how people don't understand that it’s our global response that matters. None of this is over until we’re all safe.”
New Zealand and Vietnam have deep ties.
Last year marked 45 years of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. In the year to June 2020, two-way trade was more than $2 billion, with Vietnam projected to be one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.
MFAT spokeswoman Susan Pepperell said Aotearoa New Zealand recognised the impacts of the latest Delta outbreaks on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, despite its remarkable management of Covid-19 in 2020.
Last year, Vietnam was one of the few countries in the world, and the only Southeast Asian country, to record positive economic growth.
As populations in rich countries move towards full vaccination, those nations are transferring vaccines through COVAX and vaccine diplomacy.
“Vietnam now appears to be turning a corner with its daily case numbers falling steadily and restrictions on movement and businesses slowly lifting, and we remain confident of the prospects for its economy to bounce back,” Pepperell said.
Both countries understood the way out of the pandemic was through vaccinations, which was why New Zealand was a member of the COVAX facility.
New Zealand also provided $1m to the ASEAN Covid-19 Response Fund.
Despite the impacts of the pandemic, the bilateral had relationship remained strong. In 2020, prime ministers of both countries met virtually to announce a new strategic partnership.
And Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta recently spoke to her counterpart Bui Thanh Son with both agreeing the need for ongoing bilateral and regional cooperation, including through APEC to combat Covid-19 and to ensure a strong recovery through the region.
UNICEF urgently needs your help with the biggest health campaign in history