Cambridge English Dictionary defines a crisis as a situation that is extremely difficult or dangerous, especially when there are many problems like a major global crisis combined with an economic crisis. The pandemic has clearly tested leaders. With more than 170 countries severely impacted, the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many truths about leadership and governance of those in power. It is becoming apparent that experience is correlated to successful leadership and successful leadership is directly related to how any crisis is managed. We have an economic crisis because we have a public health crisis. We have a public health crisis because our leaders were indecisive. They were indecisive because they lack the experience. We must also acknowledge that the Philippines has taken the top spot from Indonesia as having the most number of infections in Southeast Asia. A grim reminder that the country has a long way to go before any talk of an economic recovery. Comparing that of Vietnam’s response to the crisis is worth studying. As of this writing, I am sharing below a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CISI) tracker report comparing the Philippines (population of 105 million) with Vietnam (population of 97 million).
The CISI tracker report is very revealing. Crises make or break leadership. Just like most economies all over the world, Covid-19 could have easily undermined Vietnam’s economy and its people had the pandemic overrun the country. In truth, the way its leaders prevented the spread only strengthened the country’s reputation and boosted public confidence in the government. Their exceptional levels of responsiveness saved thousands of lives and livelihoods. Call it overreaction but it has paid off tremendously.
“When you’re dealing with these kinds of unknown novel potentially dangerous pathogens, it’s better to overreact,” said Dr. Todd Pollack of Harvard’s Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam in Hanoi. Recognizing that its health system would soon become overwhelmed by even a mild spread of the virus, Vietnam instead chose prevention early instead of fighting the virus. The government clearly had a plan and it showed the world that it would be decisive and on a massive scale.
According to a BBC news report, by early January, before it had any confirmed cases: “Vietnam’s government was initiating ‘drastic action’ to prepare for this mysterious new pneumonia which had at that point killed two people in Wuhan. When the first virus case was confirmed on Jan. 23—a man who had traveled from Wuhan to visit his son in Ho Chi Minh City—Vietnam’s emergency plan was in action.
“It very, very quickly acted in ways which seemed to be quite extreme at the time but were subsequently shown to be rather sensible,” said professor Guy Thwaites, director of Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam enacted measures other countries would take months to move on, bringing in travel restrictions, closely monitoring and eventually closing the border with China and increasing health checks at borders and other vulnerable places. Schools were closed for the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January and remained closed until the middle of May. A vast and labor intensive contact tracing operation got under way.”
Preventing the spread of the virus
Asia Unbound’s Huong Le Thu explained in detail: “Vietnam’s response is especially impressive, given that it is a lower middle-income country, poorer than neighbors like Indonesia and the Philippines. Those countries face expanding outbreaks and do not seem to have gotten control on domestic transmission. Vietnam has a modest budget for health care and broader public health measures and cannot test as many people. It also shares a border with China, where the pandemic originated, and its economy is closely linked with that of China. It was also one of the first countries to have a confirmed Covid-19 case outside of China.” Huong continued: “Chastened by its experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which hit China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia hard in 2003, Hanoi learned from Sars that it had to react quickly to any disease outbreaks and take tough initial measures. It was the first country to successfully contain Sars. So, with Covid-19, the Vietnamese authorities reacted immediately, decisively, and with a degree of severity that proved to be a good judgment.”
To be continued...