At G-20 and in Vietnam, Biden to sell American partnerships — all at China’s expense

Vietnam defied the experts and sealed its border to keep Covid-19 out. It worked.

“As the pandemic took hold last year, travel restrictions quickly proliferated — they were the second-most-common policy governments adopted to combat Covid-19. According to one review, never in recorded history has global travel been curbed in “such an extreme manner”: a reduction of approximately 65 percent in the first half of 2020. More than a year later, as countries experiment with vaccine passports, travel bubbles, and a new round of measures to keep virus variants at bay, a maze of confusing, ever-changing restrictions remains firmly in place.

But few countries have gone as far as Vietnam, a one-party communist state with a GDP per capita of $2,700. The Haiphong checkpoints timed for Tet were the equivalent of closing off Los Angeles to Americans ahead of Thanksgiving — within a country that was already nearly hermetically sealed. Last March, the government canceled all inbound commercial flights for months on end, making it almost impossible to fly in, even for Vietnamese residents.

Today, flights are limited to select groups, like businesspeople or experts, from a few low-risk countries. Everybody who enters needs special government permission and must complete up to 21 days of state-monitored quarantine with PCR tests. (Positive cases are immediately isolated in hospitals, regardless of disease severity.)

This strict approach to travel, global health experts say, is directly connected to Vietnam’s seeming defeat of Covid-19. Thirty-five people have reportedly died in total, and a little more than 2,700 have been infected with the virus during three small waves that have all been quickly quashed. Even on the worst days of the pandemic, the country of 97 million has never recorded more than 110 new cases — a tiny fraction of the 68,000 daily case high in the United Kingdom, which has a population one-third smaller than Vietnam, or the record 300,000-plus cases per day only the US and India managed to tally.

Last year, Vietnam’s economy even grew 2.9 percent, defying economists’ predictions and beating China to become the top performer in Asia.”

“Vietnam’s travel restrictions — supported by other measures, including enforced quarantining and contact tracing — help explain the country’s apparent mastery over the virus.”

“it’s now clear that the well-meaning advice and previous research findings didn’t match up with the situation the world was facing in early 2020. The new virus was different — more contagious and harder to stop. SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted prior to the onset of symptoms, if they ever occur — while with SARS and Ebola, for example, people are only contagious when they are very ill or symptomatic.

The new coronavirus contagion inspired drastic measures. After China locked down Wuhan in January 2020, a move many called “draconian,” countries around the world scrambled and experimented with their own travel restrictions.

Only a few, though, did something that “seemed unfathomable” prior to the pandemic, said University of Hong Kong public health professor Karen Grépin: They completely closed their borders. It was an approach experts had no evidence for. “No one [had] modeled out a scenario in which borders would be shut,” she said, and stay shut.

Yet that’s essentially what happened in Vietnam — and in a few states or regions, mostly islands including Taiwan and New Zealand, that have virtually eliminated the virus.”

“where Western countries introduced travel restrictions late, targeted their measures at countries with confirmed Covid-19 cases (or variants now), made quarantine optional or didn’t enforce it, and allowed loopholes (like excluding certain groups from travel restrictions, or letting people arriving over land avoid quarantine), Vietnam walled itself in. While Western countries continue to roll measures back whenever case counts come down, Vietnam has kept its wall up — even during periods when the country recorded zero new coronavirus cases.”

“The restrictions also appear to work best if they’re implemented when they most seem like overkill, said London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist Mark Jit. That is, before (or after) community transmission takes place, he added.

“The natural thing is to think, ‘When we have a big problem, there are many Covid cases, that’s the point when we need to start doing a lot of things.’ But for travel restrictions — these are the solution to stop the problem from happening in the first place,” Jit explained. “It seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s very paradoxical.””

““[The] two countries taking the quickest action are Taiwan and Vietnam — they shared the same reasons: geographical proximity to and distrust in China,””

“Contact tracing became so widespread that the population now speaks the language of epidemiologists”

“When a single person tests positive, it can trigger a targeted lockdown, “isolating a large area when the fire is big, isolating a small area when the fire is small,” Mai Tien Dung, the chair of the Office of the Government, said.

In practice, this meant that last February, just as Lunar New Year travel and Vietnam’s third wave was picking up, a Hanoi apartment block, where more than 1,000 people live, closed down one evening after a woman tested positive for the virus. The entrances were barricaded and guarded by police as hundreds of residents spilled out, masked and social distancing, waiting for a free Covid-19 test.”

“More than a year later, Vietnam’s success with keeping case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths low laid bare the arrogance and faulty assumptions that went into determining which countries would win or lose in their battles with the virus. With the exception of short-lived, targeted lockdowns, life in Vietnam today largely resembles the Before Times in a way many Westerners can only envy. People go to bars, share drinks with friends, and enjoy live music. Restaurants and cafes are open. Children attend school and see their grandparents in person.

The population never experienced the disorientation, economic pain, and mental health toll of rolling national lockdowns. Hospitals never buckled under the strain of masses of coronavirus patients. Kids didn’t miss a year of school. (There was a brief nationwide social distancing order last April when all schools were shut for three weeks.)

Vietnam is also one of a handful of countries whose economies grew in 2020”

“because the virus was quickly contained internally, the domestic economy rebounded, just as Thanh and his colleagues had hoped. Manufacturing continued, and exports grew by 6.5 percent — not far off from the usual export turnover increase of 8 percent, according to Thanh.”

“Vietnam’s early, quick response to Covid-19 was inspired, in part, by the country’s shared border with China. But what other countries need to learn is that, in a globalized world, they share borders with China, too.”