Passengers from HCM City arriving at Nôi Bài International Airport in Hà Nội on the first flight to Hà Nội under the transport ministry's plan for resumption of domestic air routes. — VNA/VNS Photo Huy Hùng
Trần Trọng Kiên
HÀ NỘI — The Government of Việt Nam late Tuesday issued its highly-anticipated Resolution No.128 on the adoption of provisional guidelines on safe and flexible living with COVID-19, after a few weeks of what presumed to be much haggling between invited stakeholders.
The temporary framework, applicable nationwide, is a landmark in Việt Nam’s COVID-19 response as it officially pulls our country out of the group of what's left of the world’s few pursuers of ‘zero COVID-19 strategy,’ following the footsteps of Australia and New Zealand, leaving China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as lone holdouts.
To be perfectly clear, low caseload, minimal fatalities, robust economic growth, and pretty much a resemblance of normal life throughout much of 2020 and early 2021, can still attest to the correctitude of the decisions that Việt Nam has made, and nothing can take that away from us, but all in all, stringent lockdown is only a ‘stalling’ move until medical intervention is available – vaccines and/or drugs for COVID-19. It’s high time for a change, not a complete about-face to a laissez faire policy, but more of a living with some COVID.
With this new Resolution, all prior fixed sets of COVID-19 measures – Directives No.19, 15, and 16 – in ascending tiers of mobility curbs that provinces and cities could apply if they see fit since the pandemic broke out, have ceased to be in favour of a colour-coded risks assessment with clearer epidemiological criteria – green/blue for low-risk (new normal), yellow for medium-risk, orange for high-risk and red for very high-risk.
Pandemic risk is determined on the basis of three indicators: Number of new infections over population over time, vaccine coverage, and treatment capacity of different administrative levels.
The resolution still allows for some leg room at local levels. Based on instructions of the Ministry of Health, cities and provinces could decide to raise or lower COVID-19 assessment risk, and they are allowed to adopt additional measures as long as they are not contrary to the regulations adopted by the central Government, but in case of raising the pandemic assessment risk, local authorities have to inform citizens and businesses at least 48 hours in advance, which will certainly earn appreciation from the public.
Essentials of the Resolution 128. — VNA/VNS Infographic
It's still a lot to memorise all the colourful dos and don’ts, but at least it will allow for more consistent and transparent application of COVID-19 restrictions – like, this province has about AAA cases in the past week out of 100,00 residents, which means it is under code BBB, and so CCC activities are banned while DDD activities are still allowed but at a reduced capacity, so on and so forth, which is different from before when the directives are only lifted or eased into the less stringent ones when there's NO community cases in two weeks or so.
Random test requirements would also no longer be a thing, according to the guidelines from the health ministry after the Resolution was passed, but prescribed only for high-risks groups and not for general travel.
Another highlight of the resolution is its emphasis the order that localities’ additional measures must not constitute hindrance to movement of goods, production and business activities, and the mobility of people. The different COVID-19 policies that localities have applied, sometimes in defiance of central government or health ministry’s instructions in the past months, which Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính has decried as ‘cát cứ’ – a word that could be understood as 'secession' and have inconvenienced people, frustrated businesses and disrupted the domestic production and supply chains.
The latter even has international implications since like many Southeast Asian nations with their role as the world’s factories but are now deep in the throes of persistent Delta outbreak, the disruptions from prolonged lockdown with inconsistent rules throughout the country have contributed to worsening world’s growth outlook this year.
No overnight changes
So many hopes are pinned on the Government’s new resolution to finally put an end to the messy 'secession' and rescue the slumping economy.
But expectations should be tempered. The regulations are provisional, and the true ‘consistent’ and ‘uniformed’ approach can only be realised when all localities hit the optimal level of vaccination coverage (which might change from the standard 75-80 per cent with the new Delta variant) as well as sufficient preparations for large-scale outbreaks when restrictions are lifted, and not just a shared understanding/acceptance of 'some COVID.'
Hà Nội along with Hải Phòng insisted on refusing domestic flights to and from other the cities as part of the aviation authority’s resumption plan slated to start on October 1 on a pilot basis after months of suspension, even with many strings attached to the travellers like they have to be fully vaccinated and tested negative for coronavirus.
It took Hà Nội more than one week since the proposal first came out to actually relent to allow flights again at a very tentative and limited number from COVID-19 epicentre HCM City and Đà Nẵng, in face of high travel demands and public pressure, given that the outbreak is well under control in the capital city while about 47 per cent of adults have received two vaccine shots.
It cited risks from incoming travellers and demanded that the transport ministry obtains agreements from all neighbouring provinces to Hà Nội. Sounds like Hà Nội being difficult, or the leaders fearful of the emergence of few infections that they resort to overly heavy-handed measures instead of taking on the more nuanced work of 'management'? It would appear that way, but to play devil’s advocate, it is somewhat fair.
HCM City, for example, still sees thousands of new cases a day, even though with a high vaccination rate, it has been well on path of reopening now that zero COVID is impossible and the lockdowns have severely affected people’s livelihoods. Well good for them, why should I take the risks, while I’m still perfectly fine with my own 'clean sheet'? Not many localities in the country have been prioritised in vaccine allocation nor do they have the capacity like HCM City or Hà Nội to cope with major outbreaks.
Should a severe outbreak unluckily take root in Hà Nội, the virus would take little time to spread to all its northern neighbours and wreak havoc there in populations with not enough protections.
We certainly don’t want to see another replication of the tragedy that unfolded in 19 southern provinces in the past few months after HCM City succumbed to the Delta variant.
So, realistically, it certainly would take hopefully only a short while until the spirit of the letter permeates the various levels of administration, the transition period completes and observable changes happen.
The popular tourist destination Đà Lạt, until Thursday night, still imposed a mandatory seven-day centralised quarantine for fully vaccinated people, fourteen days for partially vaccinated or unvaccinated, based on an old regulation that has been in place since early this month, and the Lâm Đồng Province’s authorities are drafting instructions that are in line the Government’s new resolution.
Or up north, again Hà Nội, announced lifting of many restrictions starting Thursday like allowing sit-in dining at 50 per cent capacity, resumption of bus services and taxis, as well as reopening of hotels, museums and parks. However, the city's police still maintained 22 COVID-19 checkpoints at all gateways into the cities that were set up three months ago, since the city’s authorities have not issued new guidance on abolishment of the checkpoints or checking COVID-19 tests of all entrants. But there would be ‘flexibility’ at the checkpoints to avoid congestions, especially as there are still people streaming out of severely COVID-19-hit localities in the southern region looking to get back to the northern hometowns, passing through Hà Nội en route.
Similarly, HCM City still maintains 12 checkpoints at gateways to verify COVID tests, for similar reason that there has not been official decision from the city’s administration to no longer do so.
On an end note, to have a (hopefully not too premature) vision of how basically pre-pandemic level of normal life could play out once again, Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway could offer some hints: they have for the most part got rid of all COVID-19 restrictions – including mandatory mask wearing and hand sanitation – on the back of high vaccination rate and high level of healthcare capacity.
Still, we are a long way off. These countries have only a fraction of Việt Nam’s 100+ million people population – Denmark and Norway 5-6 million and Sweden higher at over 10 million – so the vaccines we’d need to reach herd immunity is 150 million shots, and now that the Vietnamese health ministry has officialised the vaccination of children aged 12-18, the number required would be even higher.
So far, Việt Nam has administered close to 58 million doses, with daily average number of vaccine shots given hovering around 1 million since the beginning of October.
In short, don’t expect to shed your masks anytime soon, but maybe plan ahead for your next beach holidays if you have had the vaccines already. — VNS