Vietnam's COVID crisis deepens - Rusty Compass travel blog

Vietnam's COVID crisis deepens

| 08 Aug 2021
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08 Aug 2021

Some thoughts from Sydney in lockdown on travel, missing Vietnam, and the worsening COVID crisis in South East Asia.

As I write this blog, I am in lockdown. Sydney's been locked down for seven weeks now. It's a professional and financial disaster that comes on top of the 18 month pandemic disaster. COVID has been thorough in its devastation of international travel businesses.

But I consider myself fortunate. I have a comfortable living environment. I love my home, the natural light in my work space, the simple garden, and the neighbourhood around me. I live close by parks. I'm able to get out to walk and cycle every day. I stay connected with friends and family.

Sydney's current Delta outbreak looks more careless than inevitable, but Australia has done a good job during the pandemic. Our casualty numbers are way below those of most other countries. Even our economic and lockdown numbers were impressive - until the coalition fringe got the upper hand in the Sydney outbreak strategy.

We have an enviable public health system and committed public health professionals. I was reminded of that again when I had a brush with death last year (see my earlier blog on my aortic dissection).

Every day, news of Vietnam's struggle with its Delta outbreak, puts the situation in Sydney in perspective.

It's now 18 months since I've been in Vietnam, my home for most of the past three decades. It's strange to have had this separation forced by COVID. The familiarity of Vietnam - people, friends, work, food, scenes, sounds - my pre-COVID life, is deeply ingrained. Duong, my business partner at the Old Compass, and her team, and all the people in the Old Compass Cafe and Rusty Compass communities, create a wonderful world. I miss it. I'm sure the long unexpected separation has some deep, unknowable impact.

Three months ago, like many others, I was starting to think about a post-COVID world and travelling again. I hoped that late 2021 and 2022 would be a better version of 2019.

The music died - Sydney's COVID lockdown
Photo: Mark Bowyer The music died - Sydney's COVID lockdown
City abandoned - Sydney in lockdown
Photo: Mark Bowyer City abandoned - Sydney in lockdown

In May this year, Vietnam and Australia had done well through COVID. In Saigon, we were hosting authors, architects and musicians for talks and events at The Old Compass. I was keeping in touch with them from Sydney.

The optimism didn't last. Right now, a post-COVID world is looking distant again. Sydney's a mess and I hear often about the terrible hardship Vietnam is experiencing - cases, deaths and a harsh lockdown. The situation around the world looks fragile too.

The Delta variant poses new challenges across South East Asia - as it does in Sydney and elsewhere. COVID's 2020 incarnation left Vietnam and most of Asia in peace and Australia succeeded in keeping the pandemic at bay. The Delta variant doesn't respect previous performance.

Better days - hosting a chat with award winning author and foreign correspondent Elizabeth Becker at The Old Compass Cafe, Saigon
Photo: Supplied Better days in 2019 - hosting a chat with award winning author and foreign correspondent Elizabeth Becker at The Old Compass Cafe, Saigon


I find myself indulging memories of travels and life in Vietnam before 2020. The struggles of COVID and lockdowns in a developing country are on my mind too. Last night I watched a video from Vietnam of lines of trucks and vans packed with coffins outside a crematorium stretched way beyond capacity. The official casualty count in Vietnam is now in the hundreds each day and rising. The hospital system is at breaking point.

People in Sydney are focused on their own struggles. That's reasonable and inevitable. But the gravity of how COVID is playing out in South East Asia is alarming.

Lockdowns are an essential but inherently unequal pandemic response. They're unequal here in Sydney, harming the poor and disadvantaged most. In developing countries like Vietnam, they're brutal.

I am only hearing snippets of how tough things are in Vietnam. Even for the relatively privileged, a lockdown in a country at Vietnam's level of development is a huge challenge. The hardship being suffered by the poor - already doing it tough pre-COVID - is unimaginable.

Vaccination is the challenge across the region - as it is in Australia.

Vietnam faces difficult choices. With a population just shy of 100 million, Vietnam needs at least 200 million doses - 4 times Australia's most basic requirement. Meanwhile Vietnam's economy is one fifth the size of Australia's. That makes paying for vaccines a huge cost burden. Those costs hit hard across the developing world. And the need for booster vaccines in early 2022 is already looking likely. There are lives and economies on the line.

Looking forward to Vietnam's return
Photo: Mark Bowyer Looking forward to Vietnam's return
Missing Saigon's unique chaos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Missing Saigon's unique chaos

I'm getting word that Vietnam has started to ramp up its previously sluggish vaccination programme. Vietnam's experience of war and suffering gives the country a unique capacity and infrastructure to marshal national energy and commitment in a crisis.

There are hopes a vaccine developed in Vietnam will be in use before the end of 2021 and there are plans to develop mRNA capability. These would be remarkable accomplishments for a developing economy. They're still a way off. In the meantime, Vietnam is using the relatively small vaccine shipments it receives from around the world - many donated - to get shots in arms in cities facing surging cases. Vaccines from the US, Europe, UK, China and Russia - whatever they can get their hands on - are all on the table. Australia has donated millions of doses of Astra Zeneca. The Vietnamese people want Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca - but take what they're given. Vietnam isn't likely to reach a high level of vaccination until well in to 2022.

The whole vaccine question brings to the fore big pharma ethical issues that have been simmering in the background for decades. The biggest of these is how much big pharma should profit from vaccines in a pandemic?

If we assume that this virus will keep mutating as it has in 2021, with an ongoing need for boosters and new vaccines, we can assume that building vaccine manufacturing at scale across the developing world is one of the most urgent humanitarian tasks before us. It's also imperative for the global economy, and to prevent a constant cycle of new more dangerous mutations of coronaviruses. Just imagine a more transmissible and more deadly mutation of the Delta variant?

Developed countries, including the US, have signed up for a patent waiver for COVID vaccines that would enable countries around the world to have access to the intellectual property behind the main vaccines. The UK, Europe and Australia remain reticent - falling into line with big pharma's preference for profit.

Few countries have the technical capacity to manufacture the popular mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna right now. India, Vietnam, Thailand and others have local vaccine manufacturing capability and already produce other vaccines at scale. China is providing huge amounts of vaccine throughout the region and the world.

Dr Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust in the UK has welcomed the discussion of a patent waiver but cautioned, "The waiver alone will not, however, miraculously deliver vaccines in the vast numbers required now or in the coming months. This year, that gap can only be filled by the world’s wealthier countries sharing the vaccine doses they have secured beyond immediate national need. These doses should be shared now, through COVAX.

"To increase vaccine supply, and ensure equitable distribution, access to raw materials, technology transfer, building manufacturing capacity globally, with the skilled workforces needed, are all vital. Global negotiations have to address these to deliver what is needed in both the short and longer-term."

No country will enjoy pandemic peace until there is a global solution. COVID began as a small outbreak in Wuhan. As long as coronaviruses mutate anywhere, they will pose ongoing global risk. Vaccination issues are not just humanitarian. Self-interested insightful rich countries can also drive a better conversation about the global vaccination challenge.

It's not a great time to be pushing global causes right now. COVID has made the world more inward-looking. That's certainly true here in Australia.

Let's hope that Vietnam and its neighbours achieve success from their lockdowns and vaccination rollouts.

If you're reading this in Vietnam, we look forward to seeing you again and wish you well in fighting this crisis.

If, like me, you're concerned and missing Vietnam from afar, we share your hope that Vietnam can once again, overcome a massive national challenge and we may soon bump into one another on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon.

Here are a handful of organisations we know doing good things in Vietnam that are now directing their attention to COVID relief. Help them out if you can.

Blue Dragon -
Song Foundation
Caritas -

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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