|Families and expatriate workers are keen to see an end to social distancing measures and travel restrictions|
On March 11-12, Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi conducted mass community testing for COVID-19 in areas where non-nationals are more likely to live and gather as authorities seek to eliminate the spread from imported cases.
A second phase of similar testing is due to take place throughout this week. The city’s Department of Health said those tested would include people living and working in areas with high risk of infection like factories and industrial parks where foreigners work or live, workers at eateries that serve foreigners, and travellers chosen randomly at major bus stations around the city. The department expects to test around 4,000 people in all.
The move is part of a wider campaign to stamp out coronavirus once and for all, as countries worldwide step up vaccination programmes. As they do so, queries are being made by non-residents over how and when they can access a vaccine.
Since last year Vietnam has allowed experts and skilled workers to enter the country, which poses a possible threat of infection spread. There have also been a substantial number of non-nationals who remained in the country throughout the pandemic as they work and live here, or travellers who decided to stay put until the worst was over and borders were reopened.
With that in mind, earlier this month it was hinted that the government will plan to offer vaccinations to both residents and non-residents as soon as is feasible, possibly starting with the capital itself.
Addressing reporters’ questions at a municipal Center for Disease Control (CDC) meeting on March 4, deputy director Khong Minh Tuan said authorities in the capital have been proactive in sourcing coronavirus vaccine doses.
“On February 19, the municipal authorities sent a written petition to the Ministry of Health to ensure the city’s access to the vaccine source,” Tuan said.
The early request was to secure adequate inoculation for all eligible citizens 18 years old and older in the capital. The COVID-19 immunisation would also cover non-residents, Tuan noted.
“According to the priority order of the Ministry of Health, the shots will be distributed to 13 provinces and cities that have reported COVID-19 infections, including Hanoi,” said the city’s CDC deputy director.
The top priority will remain Hai Duong in the meantime, as the epicentre in northern Vietnam, Tuan explained. “Therefore, the number of shots left for Hanoi will be limited. But we will prioritise those in the anti-pandemic front line.”
No slip-ups now
However, it is accepted the major cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang could be most at risk of new outbreaks as and when nationals and non-nationals enter the country from elsewhere. Last year, the most prominent case involved a British pilot who inadvertently spread coronavirus in a popular expat area of Ho Chi Minh City. The patient ended up in a coma and eventually recovered before being allowed home.
In the most recent outbreak, a Japanese national who entered Vietnam on January 17 and was quarantined in Ho Chi Minh City before travelling to Hanoi died at a hotel in Tay Ho district, the most popular district for foreigners to live in the capital.
Foreigners residing in Hanoi were generally pleased to learn that Vietnam was moving quickly with a programme for vaccinations, rather than delaying for longer.
“I’m surprised vaccines arrived so quickly, as I know there have been issues globally with supply,” said David Payne, an English language teacher. “But the country has battled the pandemic so well over the past year, I don’t expect it to slip up now.”
Yoga teacher Olivia Brown was one of several non-nationals hoping for more clarity on vaccines for those not yet in priority groups. “I was hoping to get back to Europe this year but I’ve no idea if I should wait for a vaccine here first. The whole situation is confusing and it’s not easy being patient, but it is right that the most vulnerable people need to be taken care of first.”
Non-Vietnamese people rarely cited cost when asked about vaccines, with many expecting to have to pay. In fact, Tuan of Hanoi CDC said on March 4, funds for the vaccinations could come from the state budget, donations by individuals and businesses, and self-pay vaccine users, in accordance with the resolution of the government.
But in terms of eligibility, even as other nations begin inoculating citizens, such unprecedented times mean procedures and rules for those eligible for vaccines are unclear, or vary wildly between countries or even between state lines.
Last month, Japan laid out plans to issue coronavirus vaccination vouchers to its over 2.2-million registered foreign residents at the same time as Japanese citizens. However, preparations to provide foreign-language information on how to get the vaccine remained up in the air.
A Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare representative told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, “Basically, the conditions to get vaccinated are the same (for foreigners) as for Japanese citizens. As a rule, vouchers will go to those with registered residences. Those who are clearly living in Japan will get vaccines.”
Last month seemed to be a milestone for many nations trying to set up such conditions, or at least attempt to provide some clarity. Reuters reported that Malaysia would extend its free vaccination programme to all foreigners residing in the country – including students, refugees, and undocumented migrants. The Southeast Asian country began its vaccine rollout at the end of last month, and aims to cover at least 80 per cent of its 32 million people within a year.
Mish-mash of rules
Nations that have land borders with others are seeing problems when it comes to foreigners travelling across to find vaccines, an issue especially prominent in the United States.
States in the US have been authorised to devise their own vaccination eligibility requirements based on guidance from an advisory group, and each state has different rules. California’s vaccination website explicitly states that residency is not a requirement for receiving a dose, while Arizona acknowledges that it is probably vaccinating some that have crossed borders. Elsewhere, the governor of Texas insisted that the state’s vaccine supply is for Texans only, but did not explain how that could be enforced.
Closer to Vietnam, it was reported by the Khmer Times on February 24 that all foreigners living and working in Cambodia would be eligible to receive a free vaccine. However, the types of vaccines were not specified in the announcement and some foreigners were quickly turned away.
One 35-year-old European expat who lives and works in Cambodia said he was rejected before staff even looked at his identification or asked if he was part of a priority group.
“They just said that no foreigners can have the vaccine at all. Only people who work for the government or have an approval paper from the ministry. She never asked about an ID,” he said. Other foreigners reported no issues with receiving an early vaccine from other facilities in the country.
Confusion is leading to people to look to other countries, which could become more of an issue as borders reopen. The discussion over Vietnam’s border has raged for a year, as one of the countries with the tightest rules. Inevitably, talk about opening for vaccinated tourists, or even people seeking a vaccine, has caused unease for some already in the country.
Mark Gordon, who works in education in Ho Chi Minh City said, “I hope the government is careful (with opening borders fully) or the incredibly hard work so far will be moot. The virus may spread quickly again and damage communities beyond repair.”
By Quang Hai