By Linh Vo
The other day, I woke up to a text message informing me of my upcoming vaccine appointments. If you live in Geneva, you are probably aware that now everyone over the age of 16 is eligible for the COVID vaccine – signaling that soon, we will perhaps be able to return to a sense of normalcy. (If you are eligible but not yet registered, here is where you can do it.)
Of course, I am excited. But at the same time, I am frustrated. Because while it looks like the end of the tunnel is approaching in Europe and North America, that is not the case for much of the rest of the world. You might have read that 45 percent of all administered doses have gone to only 16 percent of the world’s population, namely those residing in high-income countries. Or that Canada has ordered enough vaccines to inoculate its entire population at least four times over. Or that most of Europe, the United States, Israel, and Taiwan are projected to achieve widespread vaccination in 2021, while much of Africa and Asia, along with parts of Central and South America will have to wait at least two years more. Meanwhile, neither my elderly grandparents—both of whom are in their 80s—nor my retirement-aged parents in Hanoi are due to receive their first shot anytime soon. The only reason that I, a healthy 25-year-old Vietnamese individual, will be getting mine now is because I have the good fortune – or rather the immense privilege – of studying in one of the richest countries in the world.
Just a few months ago, being in Switzerland did not feel like such a privilege. Spending most of the time in my room amidst rising case numbers, rolling lockdowns, and increasingly confusing and conflicting restrictions, I watched—in great relief, but also frustration—as my family and friends in Vietnam enjoyed a mostly normal and worry-free life: studying in classrooms, working at the office, traveling to tourist hotspots, eating out, and attending crowded concerts. It was almost as if the pandemic never happened. With just over 5700 cases and 44 deaths in total (as of May 25, 2021), Vietnam has been lauded as one of the countries with the best responses to COVID-19, especially given a population of nearly 100 million with high urban density, limited technical, medical, and economic resources, and our shared, porous borders with China—the original hotspot.
There is nothing special about Vietnam’s strategy to manage COVID-19. It included mandatory quarantine, extensive contact tracing, regional lockdowns, and closed borders—meaning that it all came down to elimination, and not simply mitigation. Masks were uniformly adopted, and people stayed home when asked to do so, without any movement restrictions or curfews. Quarantine was strictly enforced and complied with, and costs were subsidized by the government. Communication was clear, consistent, concise, and at times, creative; have you seen our globally viral hand-washing dance? Vietnam knew its ill-equipped healthcare system could not handle a large-scale, nationwide outbreak, and so everyone had to do their best to prevent one from happening.
And by everyone, I do mean everyone. Vietnam’s success, of course, came with sacrifices. After over a year of border closures, Vietnamese citizens remain stranded overseas, unless they were able to find a spot on one of the coveted, government-approved repatriation flights. International tourism, previously a significant contributor to the country’s total GDP, is virtually dead. Regional lockdowns, which happen immediately whenever a case is found in that area, interrupt daily life and jeopardize the livelihoods of many, especially those in precarious circumstances. It is tiring and frustrating, but these are the rules necessary to keep people alive. And for the most part, the people play by these rules. The caseload and casualties remain low; the population is healthy and happy with the situation; and the economy, unburdened by prolonged restrictions, actually grew.
On the other hand, much has been said about Western countries’ failure to respond quickly and appropriately to the threat of COVID-19, despite massive resources and time for preparation. Europe dug its heels in and ignored warning signs as the virus found a foothold in Italy, where it began to spread to the rest of the continent and the world. A new external report commissioned by the WHO declared February 2020 a “lost month”. Even then, control measures were often slow, inconsistent, and poorly coordinated. Last December, shops in Geneva were closed while those in Vaud—a twenty-minute train-ride away—were packed with customers. At one point, you might have needed a test to enter France by train or air, but no one would check if you were driving in. It made no sense, and it undermined other efforts to control the disease.
Such complacency and inadequate measures in the supposedly developed Global North have led to millions of deaths and countless more suffering, and have partially contributed to the proliferation of new and more dangerous variants, which—combined with widespread vaccine hesitancy—might render the virus endemic. And yet, these are the same countries that will recover the soonest from the pandemic, thanks to a vaccine rollout scheme that favors the wealthy and powerful.
In the meantime, despite our best efforts, as the virus surged in neighboring countries, Vietnam is battling its fourth outbreak and its worst one yet, recording as many as 190 cases per day (yes, that is a record for us). It is the same cycle: cases are identified, quarantine and lockdown happen, people are worried, and after a few weeks, things (hopefully) get under control. A few months later, rinse and repeat. At this point, however, people are getting tired and dispirited. We do not see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, and no one knows when that will happen. Vietnam is trying its best to inoculate as quickly as possible, including developing its own vaccines. Yet, with a large population and limited economic resources, the country has only managed to vaccinate 1 percent of its population so far.
Similar to other developing countries, the vaccination rollout in Vietnam has been hampered by pharmaceutical companies’ monopoly on vaccines’ intellectual property. As Vietnam deals with its latest outbreak, Pfizer is reportedly refusing to negotiate on the price of its vaccine with the country—despite having earned billions of dollars from it already. The injustice is glaring, even if unsurprising.
Of course, I am not arguing that Vietnam should have gotten the vaccines first. I am also too cynical to believe that vaccine equity is achievable anytime soon—not with the current world order. What I am worried about is that as the West recovers from the pandemic while the rest of the world continues to suffer, Western governments and their populations will not have learned their lessons. I am afraid that they will soon believe that a different scenario—with much less suffering and chaos—was simply not possible, and that other countries’ persisting COVID problems were their own fault, instead of being the result of global power dynamics between the “developed” North and “developing” South. I only hope that the case of Vietnam, through this short article, can remind you just how wrong such an idea is.
Linh Vo is a second-year master’s student in Anthropology & Sociology from Hanoi, Vietnam. Her various interests include gender equality, female sexuality, technology, migration, any combination of those, and whatever else that catches her attention on social media (note of the author: where she spends frankly too much time).
Photos by Linh Vo