Red – the colour usually associated in Vietnam with luck – now wraps doors instead of presents. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in southeast Asia, homes in Ho Chi Minh with a coronavirus positive person isolating inside are taped off as a sign to keep your distance. The city is currently under one of the world's strictest lockdowns as Vietnam battles an unprecedented breakout of Covid-19.
When I arrived back to Ho Chi Minh in January, after being away for almost a year, I went from 15 days of mandated hotel quarantine to a “normal” life of rooftop bars and crowded streets. Thanks to a strict entry and quarantine process, Vietnam had largely kept coronavirus at bay. Up until April this year, Vietnam recorded just 5,400 total Covid-19 cases and 35 deaths. As of September 9th, there are now 551,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 13,701 deaths.
How did things change so drastically in just a few months? Mostly, a combination of the highly transmissible Delta variant and an unvaccinated population of 98 million people. Vietnam has struggled with its vaccine rollout, relying on the Covax scheme and donations from other countries. Even after an intensified vaccination schedule, just 3.5 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated and 16.5 per cent have one shot.
Most of the vaccines have gone to the hotspot, Ho Chi Minh, which accounts for 80 per cent of deaths and half the infections. The city started a somewhat chaotic vaccine rollout this summer and now has more than 80 per cent of its nine million population vaccinated with at least one shot. I’m one of them, yet my digital information hasn’t been updated with my vaccination proof, and I’ve no idea when I’ll get my second jab.
Vaccine supplies are arriving in dribs and drabs, and the city has been under a total lockdown since August 23rd. While certain levels of restrictions have been in place since the end of May, the latest directive is extreme. Residents aren’t even allowed to leave their homes for food – instead, the military is liaising with local ward unions to deliver weekly groceries.
While most of the lockdown restrictions are understandable – and necessary – others are hard to comprehend
I received mine last week and was impressed with the number of veggies, although surprised at just how many types of random greens and gourds were in the package. If you’ve never Googled “gourd dessert recipe”, I envy you. Food supply is affecting the whole city, and although new rules this week allowed shippers to deliver orders of fresh food, stores are overwhelmed, and deliveries are taking days to arrive (if they even do).
Overnight, restaurants were suddenly told they could deliver takeaways after being shut for two months, yet many lack the fresh produce and delivery drivers needed to operate on such short notice.
While most of the lockdown restrictions are understandable – and necessary – others are hard to comprehend. Only “essential” goods can be delivered (which means no impulsive online shopping for me), but many actual essential products such as sanitary items and pet food are considered “non-essential”. This causes a lot of stress around the city.
Residents are not even allowed out for walks and there’s a citywide curfew from 6pm-6am. Luckily for my two foster dogs, Milk and Lord, rules don’t apply to non-humans, so I’ve been able to let them run a little in the alley in front of my house and call them back inside. It’s a privilege that those living in apartments with pets don’t have.
Breaking the rules is a no-go, with fines and even imprisonment a risk. The government even released an app where people can anonymously report sightings of rule-breakers, often their neighbours.
Although I’m finding the restrictions tough, my worries are nothing compared to many of the city’s residents, who have mostly been out of work for two to three months with no income coming in. There’s a huge demand for basic support, with complaints of insufficient help from the government. Messaging apps such as Zalo and SOSmap.net feature a map platform where people can request help from other residents.
The healthcare system is overloaded, despite field hospitals set up across the city, with 500 taxis converted into “ambulances” to transport critical patients to hospital. The government has even offered to pay recovered Covid-19 patients in Ho Chi Minh to stay on in hospital to help staff with basic tasks.
Deaths in Ho Chi Minh are averaging 200 a day, and at least 250 children have been orphaned by the city’s Covid-19 outbreak. What were once far-away tragedies are now part of daily life here. A rush of medical workers to a home three doors down from my house turned out to be for an elderly neighbour, who we later learned had passed away.
A team of five in blue Hazmat suits came back to our alley to spray it door-to-door with disinfectant chemicals. They left a mess of discarded masks, gloves and other PPE scattered on the ground outside our group of houses. My landlady told me the neighbours were too scared to clean up, so my housemate and I tidied up the street. A neighbour gave us a precious bag of farm mushrooms to show her gratitude.
As well as the direct impact on daily life, current restrictions also mean that many government offices are closed and documents can’t be shipped across the city. Processes that usually only take days or weeks are now severely delayed, so business and visa applications can’t be approved.
My zone is orange, which means I can now leave the house to walk to collect a grocery delivery instead of waiting for military drop-offs, yet I still got stopped by the police
I'm in a sort of limbo as I wait for my Temporary Resident Card (which will be valid for two years), and a new bank account for my Vietnamese-registered company has also been put on hold. I can only hope that both are finalised soon so that I can go back to Ireland for Christmas and be reunited with my family and friends, many of whom I won't have seen for almost two years.
The government recently switched from a zero Covid-19 strategy to a new plan of living with the virus, so there’s hope that restrictions will ease on September 15th. What this will entail is anybody’s guess, as clear communication isn’t the government’s strong point.
Ho Chi Minh has been divided into zones, colour-coded by red, orange and green areas depending on the level of cases, the number of which can be checked on an interactive online map. But there’s confusion on every corner.
My zone is orange, which means I can now leave the house to walk to collect a grocery delivery instead of waiting for military drop-offs, yet I still got stopped by the police and had to politely argue to be able to collect my food at the barrier that currently separates my neighbourhood from the main road.
I've lived in southeast Asia (Thailand and Vietnam) for the entirety of the pandemic, so up until recently I was safeguarded from the impact of Covid-19. It's unsettling to see the situation deteriorate so quickly here, and many foreigners have long left the country since the outbreak worsened. I don't blame them, but this is my home now so I'm staying put.
Little things, such as seeing my neighbours sneak treats to my dogs through the gate or share fruit with us, have reinforced my love for this country and I’ve been studying Vietnamese during lockdown.
One phrase I've learned to say is "Viet Nam Co Lên", which means "Vietnam! Keep fighting!"