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Blog Post
19 May 2020

Will this be the new normal? A personal glimpse into the COVID-19 lockdown in Vietnam

Spraying the floor with disinfectants, Beijing, China.

Photo: Tedward Quinn / Unsplash

Anyone who has been to a Southeast Asian capital remembers the constant background noise of honking vehicles and the exhaust gas brume, drills and metal clinking, karaoke and chatting people. One day, Hanoi exchanged all those sounds for bird chirping, more bird chirping and an occasional police truck with loudspeakers telling everyone to go home.

January: I’ve been in Vietnam for the last 10 years as a climate change scientist at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), and was just about to visit a project site in Myanmar, when the coronavirus reached Hanoi. My friend and I are watching the press conferences with the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), praising the Government of China in responding to the virus, outlining that the epidemic is not yet a pandemic. The wording of his praise alerts our disaster antennae. “What is he waiting for?” we ask ourselves. Then Wuhan locks down.

Part 1: Realisation

Wuhan in China, and Hanoi in Vietnam, 10 million people in each city and the same distance in between as Milan in Italy (the epicenter of the European virus) and Gothenburg, my birthplace in Sweden.

Lunar New Year is approaching, which means millions of holiday travelers in China and Vietnam.

“Perfect growing grounds for viruses,” says the rational me.

February: Vietnam stops flights from China. This New Year will be different, many Vietnamese go to the countryside and stay there. The pavements, usually serving as motorbike parking, are now walkable and filled with watermelons dumped from 1.5 to 0.5 dollars per kilo. They hadn’t made it to China before the borders closed. The air quality index falls from red to orange.

March: Suddenly the virus hits Europe.

Within one week, Italy is in chaos. Hanoi still has zero dead and few infected. We follow the news to try to understand: How come so many are dying in Italy and France? How come so many Koreans contract it? And how come Vietnam is so spared?

One morning, the buttons in the office elevator are covered in plastic tape and it smells of overnight disinfectants. Our ‘last’ meeting for the new project consists of ten people around a conference table, all wearing face masks.

“Vietnam learned from SARS,” says my local shop owner, while spraying the money with disinfection. “We managed that, we can manage this too.”

The streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, are usually filled with people chatting, eating and drinking, parked motorbikes, cars, dogs and bicycles, and can barely be crossed. As of March 2020, the streets are silent.

Photo: Elisabeth Simelton (ICRAF).

Part 2: Isolation

March: Vietnam locks down. My planned March-May itinerary was Cambodia, Nepal, Myanmar and central Vietnam to work on projects on climate-resilient agriculture value chains, disaster risk management and support the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Watching the attention and urgency at which COVID-19 was addressed globally, the total breakdown of the international transport system and visible reductions in air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, made me temporarily optimistic that the world now had the chance to enter the low-carbon transition.

In Cambodia and Nepal we had started working with agricultural value-chains. But seeing many shops and businesses closing down in Hanoi made me wonder if the businesses we mapped in the value chains would still be around when we got back out. Cambodia’s mango faced export delays. In Nepal, rumors had it that cattle spread the virus, which made people afraid of buying milk.

“You are requested to get travel clearance and make **URGENT** contingency plans for each project,” emails my employer from Nairobi.

ICRAF’s response at this time was setting up a COVID Task Force, where each trip had to be approved and all project leaders had to make contingency plans for two scenarios for all projects: back in business by July, or back in business by October. The purpose was to communicate to our donors and project partners how our work was affected by the lockdown and how we planned to continue when we got out. Both July and October felt like ages away. It was impossible to foresee even what would happen the following day, how could we know about months away?

Entering Vietnam requires a two-week quarantine upon arrival in military camps or university dormitories. Quite personal details on each corona-case go viral, marked as a dot with a story on an app. We’re fed with slogans like “Save Vietnam” and stories of a retired English nurse who tearfully offered her thanks to Vietnamese doctors. Everyone praising the reception they received in the quarantines. But also another side of the story: difficulties for the Vietnamese nurses, often weighing less than 60 kg, to maneuver the sizes of western people, demanding more staff to provide healthcare for each foreigner.

The Vietnam COVID-19 response communication.

Photo: Vietnam’s Ministry of Health.

Vietnam’s lockdown strategy works on me: I certainly am more scared of ending up as a dot in the app, in a quarantine dormitory or a shared room at the hospital, than contracting the actual virus.

“Stay home on the couch, read a book, send a funny meme, do some pilates,” messages tell me.

Being a scientist helps me keeping sane, focus on bigger pictures. Other global concerns are not in lockdown – climate change still needs to be addressed, famine eradicated and poverty reduced. And after COVID-19, poverty will require even more attention. The contingency planning makes sense: we talk to colleagues, donors and partners. We all spend an annoying amount of time making new plans, new budgets, estimate delays and try to go ahead with as much as possible remotely.

We discuss positive scenarios. Maybe by December, national experts will have taken over the international specialists’ jobs and their fly-in-fly-out-assignments – if we can train and support national experts remotely, we can reduce the need for flying in experts on 1-2 week assignments.

We discuss bad-case scenarios. What if governments can’t co-fund their bilateral parts to projects? Will they proceed with their Nationally Determined Contributions if COP is postponed? What about our farmers? Will there be local demand to absorb the fresh veggies and fruits that would otherwise perish before reaching end destinations abroad?  Nepal’s Government has some economic relief to farmer households, many other governments don’t. This pandemic makes it evident that there are two essential sectors that are severely underpaid – nurses and local small scale farmers. I hope people still remember them when this is over.

The Hanoi street market is usually filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

Photo: Jack Young / Unsplash

Nobody knows what the world will look like when we’re out of this. “Where do I want to ‘wake up’ then?” I reason.

“There is no water in the Mekong and we are in the middle of a drought. There will be electricity shortcuts and 41 degrees warm in June,” said my colleague and left Myanmar.

For months we have been monitoring the dry-up of Mekong. The river takes its source in China where its water-flow is “regulated” through an increasing number of dams, causing cracking fields already in Tonle Sap, Cambodia, where I was supposed to be going this spring. In 2015, I joined a team of CGIAR-scientists who evaluated a drought in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta, which led to an improved land use planning map. But the droughts keep occurring.

Constant parallel dialogues run in my brain: reacting, rationalizing, conflicting feelings. “How will the farmers in Mekong region manage?” asks the scientist in me. “How smart is it to return to Europe now?” asks the private person in me.

Vietnam has been innovative during the lockdown: a young businessman puts up a rice-ATM for families short on food, test kits fund-raised by text messages are exported to Europe and Asia, and a COVID-tracing app is developed. The spring harvest in Vietnam turned out to be good because farmers in Mekong had planted earlier than normal, thanks to the new plan developed after the 2015-drought. In central Vietnam, the farmers are still waiting for the harvest.

Another **URGENT** email hits my inbox, reminding me I have a job to do. Many people don’t, and I should appreciate it.

The Mekong River Delta, Vietnam.

Photo: Anne Lin / Unsplash.

Part 3: Normalisation

April: Four weeks of total lockdown. Time flies. Zoom birthday parties across time zones from Hanoi to Vancouver. People make an effort to chat with friends across the world. Emails end with “Stay safe”.

Early on, climate scientists were cheering at the visibility of emission reductions as a result of the global shutdown. At a global scale, COVID-impact analyses are beginning to pop up. The forecasts include impacts on harvests and food security as seasonal migrant workers can’t reach their job destinations, and on poverty, as remittances evaporate, which makes a major income share to many rural families in low-income countries.

My colleague in Cambodia says some farmers can’t afford the high-quality pesticides:

“Either they will buy lower quality chemicals that may be dysfunctional resulting in over-consumption and environmental damage. Or, they will not spray at all, which can lead to more pests spreading”.

On the positive side, the domestic demand for vegetables, cashew and rice has absorbed the losses of international trade.

By the end of April, Vietnam still reports zero deaths and about 60 active cases, and there are now talks about a possible exit.

Exiting a lockdown, will it be as overwhelming as entering? What will it be like to return? How do we catch up on all postponed work? I keep thinking about whether webinars will be the new normal, or if we will be totally fed-up of it.

As of midnight April 23, Vietnam is gradually relaxing the lockdown. The country is divided into different risk categories, and Hanoi is a medium risk zone, meaning that public transport, taxi and karaoke bars will have to wait a little longer. The sound shifted in an instant after the announcement, with music, people talking in the streets, and motorbikes – and nobody chasing them away.

The air quality index that dropped to green during the lockdown is back at red, and the bird chirping is drowned by the traffic. By the middle of May everything is back, and our previously canceled travels to the project sites are now re-opened. Officially, the death toll in Vietnam is still zero, but many shops are closed and household economies ruined.

If 2019 was remembered for Greta Thunberg saying “listen to the scientists”, hopefully, 2020 will be remembered as scientists saying: “We have been telling you for decades.”For many, this is yet another glimpse into a future that is coming at a faster speed. Some are already looking into how to ‘build back better’. This is an opportunity to that.  But it has to be fast.


Elisabeth Simelton back at the World Agroforestry office in Hanoi, Vietnam

This blog is written by Elisabeth Simelton during her time in lockdown in Hanoi, Vietnam. Elisabeth Simelton is a climate change scientist at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), based in Hanoi. She leads two projects in northcentral Vietnam and is involved in two other projects, one in Myanmar on decision support tools for disaster management, and another in Cambodia and Nepal on climate-resilient agriculture value-chains. At the time of the outbreak, she was about to start up a project on Support to Implement the Paris Agreement. 

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