The novel coronavirus has hit Vietnam so far. Is it (in the end) just a storm in a tea-cup or what else?
It’s so easy to forget that disease surrounds us every day and noticeably, a fairly large part of the population still have a poor understanding of the disease and how to protect themselves; mostly in the poorer and less educated rural areas.
Most of us have experienced getting the flu or ‘Indian belly’ when we’ve travelled abroad and accept as part of the health risks. For a few more unfortunate souls, hazards such as dengue fever and worse exist when travelling in Southeast Asia.
Personally, travelling during some virus outbreaks I only felt scared once when leaving South Korea, going through Hong Kong and back to Australia during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Having people push temperature guns at my head and getting stared down by rows of policemen at the airport in Hong Kong while being questioned about my travels felt very uncomfortable. Strangely enough, the Australians were more concerned about my gifts for family in Australia that attracted more interest than the fact that I’d visited farms in South Korea.
The wiser among us get our vaccines and shots before we travel although that’s no guarantee of immunity or protection. For some, there’s the fatalist attitude of ‘why brother – life’s a gamble, anyway’. As an optimist I still believe in some caution by getting vaccinations although I’m not wearing a face mask.
I’m not unduly worried about the coronavirus outbreak as I generally avoid crowds, don’t wander through unhygienic food markets and most of the locals hang out at coffee shops I don’t visit. Am I safe? Who knows?
Although I have the distinct impression that Hoi An, where I live, seems quieter than usual, it’s hard to say whether that is simply locals still on holiday in their hometowns or everyone sheltering indoors, as if it was the Black Plague. It is slightly eerie with school kids staying home and many shops still shuttered up. I have noticed far less tourist buses roaring illegally through the main streets and there have been reports of lower numbers of Asian tourists staying in town.
I have a few local friends who run homestays and villas who told me (I did a quick phone-around) that many tourists have delayed or postponed their travel plans rather than cancelling them; so the desire to travel doesn’t seem too low at this point in time.
While Vietnam is still relatively safe, local perceptions of what to do to protect themselves seem disorganized, plagued by confusing rumors and bad advice. Local media have focused on face masks and good diets with the inevitable drug scams, miracle food supplements, and traditional medicines.
However, this is still a country where washing hands with soap, not sharing utensils or tea cups at street stalls, spitting in the streets and going to the toilet in outside areas are still public health issues with major education campaigns run regularly. Less than two houses away from my place, the local restaurant is littered with trash on the floor, men spitting as they leave and kids running around in the middle of it all.
Probably my biggest peeve comes from the local habit of shaking hands that are still wet – why is drying hands not an automatic habit?
From my Western point-of-view, the attitude of some Asian countries hasn’t helped either. In Thailand, a government minister complained about tourists not accepting face masks and in Cambodia, officials complained that locals wearing face masks was scaring away the tourists!
While the health dangers are real and every disease outbreak must be treated as a serious threat, the potential deadliness of the coronavirus pales in comparison to more common hazards. HIV/AIDS has killed more 36 million since the 1980s, the ordinary flu can kill up to half a million in an average flu season, dengue fever affects more than 50 million a year and diarrhea-related illnesses kill up to half a million young children each year.
Personally, I’m sure the economic effects from this virus will roll on far longer than the actual outbreak itself as trade, transport and tourism suffer from reduced activity. For Vietnam one question will continue to hover over its ability to cope with and recover from this? The Chinese themselves will continue to restrict overseas travel for quite some time so perphaps it’s time for Vietnam to boost alternative groups of tourists; from Europe and Western countries along with a longer visa stay option.
I am impressed with the speed at which Vietnamese health authorities have acted to protect the population so I hope the infection rate in Vietnam will rapidly go down in the coming months. I know we should all be careful (wash your hands!) but worrying too much won’t solve much.
Stay safe, everyone!
(Note: All statistics used in this article come from official World Health Organization information accessible on the Internet.)