HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM – Vietnam’s government is on a global vaccine shopping spree in hopes it can stem a surge of COVID-19 infections without resorting to more lockdowns like those that have already set back the economy and angered an increasingly frustrated public.
Like many of its East Asia neighbors, Vietnam is experiencing some of its highest infection rates since the pandemic began early last year, registering more than 2,000 new cases in a day for the first time earlier this week. It recorded 2,383 new cases on July 12, the fifth consecutive day of record highs.
However, public patience is wearing thin with the sort of restrictions that helped to keep three earlier waves of infections in check. After almost 50 days of lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City, even those who once supported the government unconditionally began to question the way Vietnam has been fighting the pandemic.
Some are also questioning whether an all-out battle against the virus is necessary, given that Vietnam is reporting far lower mortality rates from COVID-19 than many countries with more advanced health care systems. The nation’s official figures show only 130 deaths from more than 30,000 cases — a mortality rate of 0.4% compared to 1.8% in the United States.
Previous lockdowns have taken a toll on the economy. Vietnam’s General Statistics Office this month reported that 12.8 million people aged 15 or older were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic during the April-June period of this year.
Of those, 557,000 people lost their jobs, 4.1 million people had to temporarily suspend their business, 4.3 million people had their working hours cut or had to take time off or rotate work, and 8.5 million workers had their income reduced.
That has the nation’s leaders in Hanoi placing their hopes in a stepped-up campaign to vaccinate more than 70% of the population by the end of March 2022. According to Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long, the campaign will kick off this month with approximately 8.7 million vaccine doses to be administered in 18,000 vaccination centers.
That will be an ambitious undertaking, requiring an estimated 150 million vaccine doses over the next nine months. So far, Vietnam has injected not quite 4 million doses since it received its first batch of vaccines in April through COVAX, the U.N.-backed body working to get vaccines to less developed countries.
The Ministry of Health says 9 million doses have been received altogether since February, including the products of U.S., Russian, Chinese and British pharmaceutical companies.
The effort got a boost on July 10, when Vietnam received 2 million doses of the U.S.-made Moderna vaccine through the COVAX facility. The shipment is part of the 80 million doses vaccine that U.S. President Joe Biden has committed to share globally.
The foreign ministry announced this week it is also in talks with Russia and India to purchase 40 million Sputnik V and 15 million Covaxin doses, respectively. Altogether, it says, it has secured commitments to provide more than 120 million doses.
Vietnam’s leaders are also intent on developing the country’s own vaccine. Nanogen’s Nanocovax vaccine, backed by Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính, is about to finish trials and is expected to be available beginning in August.
An important consideration is the government’s desire to avoid the “vaccine diplomacy” of China, which has been accused of using its largess with vaccines to pressure Southeast Asia countries for favorable policies on other security issues.
Another worry is that some citizens will turn down certain vaccines in hopes of being injected with one that is considered to be more effective against the virus. A wave of social media posts has emerged criticizing people who want to choose vaccines on their own.