Vietnam’s first significant outbreak of the coronavirus continues to gather pace in the country’s north, threatening to spiral out of the control of the country’s health authorities. Yesterday, the Vietnamese government reported 175 new locally transmitted infections of COVID-19, bringing the country’s total confirmed cases to 4,690.
This might seem like a small number in comparison with many other nations, but represents a significant spike for Vietnam, which successfully contained the disease for the pandemic’s first year and was the only Southeast Asian nation to record positive growth in 2020.
On April 29, the nation recorded its first locally transmitted case of COVID-19 in 35 days, prompting a tightening of controls and new testing campaigns in several regions of the country, but the more transmissible variants of the disease continue to escape the government’s containment efforts. Yesterday’s toll comes after the Ministry of Health recorded 187 local infections on May 16, 181 on May 17, and 152 on May 18 (see graph here.)
The new outbreaks are concentrated in the northeastern provinces of Bac Giang and Bac Ninh, with 605 cases having been reported in the former since the beginning of the current outbreak as of Wednesday, and 353 cases in the latter.
In response, the government has set up two field hospitals in these provinces to treat the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients. Each hospital has a capacity of 300 beds and is ready to increase to 500 beds if needed.
Vietnam’s worsening outbreak comes as nearly every Southeast Asian nation battles against rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. Yesterday, Malaysia saw a daily record of 6,075 infections, pushing its total confirmed caseload close to 500,000. Thailand has also seen a record surge over the past week, as the disease has scythed through the country’s ill-prepared prison system. Meanwhile, a spike in community transmissions in Singapore, previously another COVID-19 bright spot, has pushed the country into lockdown and again delayed the opening of a planned travel bubble with Hong Kong.
Infections have also shot upward in Cambodia and Laos, which, like Vietnam and Thailand, survived 2020 mostly untouched by COVID-19, if not its dire economic effects. Cambodia only recorded its first official death from the pandemic on March 11 of this year, at which point it had recorded a total of 1,163 cases. As of yesterday, this had grown to 23,282 confirmed cases and 159 deaths.
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It wasn’t until May 9 that Laos recorded its first death from COVID-19. It has now recorded 1,697 cases of the disease as of Tuesday, and is struggling to contain a cluster of cases centered on the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a semi-autonomous tourism and casino enclave that caters mostly to Chinese tourists, forcing the government to extend a lockdown in Bokeo province, which borders China, until the end of May.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines and Indonesia, the two nations that have seen the largest total numbers of COVID-19 infections, total case numbers are trending downwards. However, the Philippines is still recording close to 5,000 confirmed cases per day, while Indonesian authorities are on high alert, concerned about a possible surge of cases from last week’s Eid holiday.
The region’s outbreaks are especially concerning given the sluggish rollout of vaccines in most Southeast Asian nations. Singapore is the outlier in this regard, having given at least one dose of vaccine to just over a third of its population as of May 17, according to the Our World in Data tracker, followed by Cambodia (12.6 percent), and Laos (6.5 percent).
Meanwhile Indonesia has given just 5.1 percent of its population one or more doses of vaccine, just ahead of Malaysia (3.9 percent) and the Philippines (2 percent). Vietnam, for all its success at COVID-19 containment, has still vaccinated just over 1 percent of its population.
Indeed, Vietnam’s lapse back into COVID-19 lockdown, along with similar outbreaks in Taiwan and Singapore, reveals the fragile nature of hard-won containment gains and the urgent necessity of reaching widespread vaccine coverage as a precursor to a sustainable reopening.
Governments across the region are now scrambling to procure the vaccines necessary to reach widespread coverage as soon as possible, but logistical challenges and supply shortfalls make it likely that the current regime of lockdowns – and the concomitant economic impacts – will be felt across the region for the foreseeable future.