Yet to reduce Vietnam’s Covid-19 success to its system of authoritarian governance is a mistake, Lee said, pointing out that democracies, like South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand, have employed similar tactics as Vietnam. And analysts have repeatedly struggled to link a country’s political system to its Covid-19 success.
Vietnam’s is “a very scientific approach and has merit on its own no matter which regime chooses to apply these types of measures,” said Bales, who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 1992. “They did extensive contact tracing. … They did massive testing. They closed down the provinces so if there was transmission, it would stay local. Most people are living a normal life, and the few people who have been exposed or infected have to bear the brunt of quarantine, testing, and isolation.”
Watching the pandemic unfold in the US and Europe, Bales was among several Vietnam-based Westerners who told Vox they believe the privacy and personal liberty costs during the pandemic were worth the benefits of living a relatively free life.
“You don’t have to worry and be afraid like you do in the West — where every time you go out, it must be stressful [wondering] about if you’re exposed, and if you’re exposed, will you have long Covid or die,” Bales said. “On a day-to-day basis, I don’t worry.”
When Vietnam’s wall comes down
One morning in early March, a taxicab pulled up to the international terminal at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport. The last time the driver took someone there was half a year ago, he said, when a Vietnamese customer wanted to fly to Taiwan for work. Today, though, a repatriation flight had just landed — one of 16 arriving in Vietnam so far this year.
Inside, the airport is a skeleton of its former self. There are no crowds waiting to greet friends and family. Cafes and restaurants are closed, and the terminal halls are quiet and dark. A group of the newly arrived passengers waiting at the luggage conveyer belt look distinctly like they’ve come from a biosafety hazard lab: wearing blue full-body protection suits and masks, provided by Vietnam Airlines staff when they boarded their flight in Paris.
The only loud noise echoing across the terminal is a voice broadcasting instructions for what the passengers need to do next: Everybody will be transported to state-supervised quarantine facilities. One by one, their names and year of birth are called out before they walk to buses to be ferried off. When they arrive, they’ll be tested for Covid-19 — and, if positive, forwarded directly to the hospital for isolation and treatment.
“We will try our best to organize so that families, parents, and children can stay together,” the voice on the speaker says, “but with friends, we may not be able to do so. We are sorry for that.”
This scene feels unimaginable in Western cities like New York or Paris — but so did ubiquitous mask-wearing and lockdowns over a year ago. With travel set to boom as the pandemic eases, and the next outbreaks on the horizon, I wondered what the rest of the world should take away from Vietnam.
Lee — and the other global health researchers I spoke to — advised caution. This pandemic showed travel restrictions can be helpful, but we should not make the same mistake we did in the past and assume what worked for the coronavirus will work for other health threats. “We don’t want countries to automatically control borders whenever a cluster of atypical pneumonia occurs,” Lee said. “Not all outbreaks require borders to be closed.”
Shutting borders comes with costs — all the people who lost travel and tourism jobs in Vietnam over the past year, or those who have been stranded far from home. Because of the very limited access to repatriation flights, thousands are waiting for their applications to get approved, and a black market for repatriation flight access sprang up. The wealthy agree to pay as much as $10,000 US for seats, while some have been scammed.
“Even if we conclude that travel restrictions and trade restrictions and migration restrictions — under certain targeted circumstances — can be an effective part of the package,” Gostin said, “we still have to take into account the fact that by implementing [them], you’re causing harms in other regards.”
Grépin also warned that the border closures countries like Vietnam put in place were “very extreme,” and pointed out that less intensive measures might prevent cases and carry fewer costs. Places like South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, for example, have shown that “if you quarantine incoming travelers you can limit public health risk without border closure,” she said. But she also noted the approach isn’t foolproof. Hong Kong, for example, is currently struggling with the virus because of its travel links with India: A single April 4 flight from New Delhi has led to more than 50 Covid-19 cases.
This raises another challenge: Travel restrictions are difficult to calibrate correctly, said Steven Hoffman, a global health professor and the director of York University’s Global Strategy Lab. “If we are going to make use of [total border closures,] we need to [acknowledge] the fact that it might be implemented for events that don’t go pandemic,” he said. “And there’s something like 200 events every year that could go pandemic.”
For now, as Vietnam weighs the benefits of Covid-19 vaccine passports and how to resume international travel, one thing is certain: The walls the country has built up will come down. People will hop on trains, planes, and buses, bringing their germs with them. The world will get smaller again, and proximity will be “more determined on the basis of the quantity of travel connections than kilometers,” Hoffman added.
Vietnam’s early, quick response to Covid-19 was inspired, in part, by the country’s shared border with China. But what other countries need to learn is that, in a globalized world, they share borders with China, too.