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Vietnam’s COVID-19 epicenter dogged by stigma

Monday, February 17, 2020, 17:54 GMT+7
Vietnam’s COVID-19 epicenter dogged by stigma
A corner of a small market is captured in Son Loi Commune, Binh Xuyen District, Vinh Phuc Province, Vietnam, February 14, 2020. Photo: Minh Hai / Tuoi Tre

Residents of a small commune in the epicenter of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic in Vietnam find themselves battling a two-front war – one against the disease and the other against social stigma bordering on discrimination.

Son Loi, a commune of 10,600 people in Binh Xuyen District located in the northern province of Vinh Phuc, has been on lockdown for five days as a handful of locals have been diagnosed with COVID-19 out of Vietnam’s 16 positive cases.

Vietnam has so far confirmed 13 Vietnamese, one Vietnamese American, and two Chinese infected with the new coronavirus.

The country’s latest COVID-19 patient was announced last Thursday, the day when Son Loi was sealed off.

The patient was the sixth confirmed case in Son Loi and the 11th in Vinh Phuc.

The patients in Vinh Phuc allegedly contracted the virus from a group of eight local workers who had recently returned to Vietnam after attending a vocational training seminar in the central Chinese city of Wuhan -- ground zero for the COVID-19 outbreak.

Vinh Phuc, particularly Son Loi, has thus been labeled the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic in Vietnam.

Authorities began sealing off the entire commune of Son Loi on Thursday last week in a bid to contain the disease’s spread.

The lockdown has not seemed to disrupt the lives of its residents as much as the stigma attached to the disease, according to Son Loi locals interviewed by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

A man has his body temperature checked at a checkpoint set up at an entrance to Son Loi Commune in Binh Xuyen District, Vinh Phuc Province, Vietnam in this photo taken on February 11, 2020. Photo: Nguyen Khanh / Tuoi Tre

A man has his body temperature measured at a checkpoint set up at an entrance to Son Loi Commune in Binh Xuyen District, Vinh Phuc Province, Vietnam in this photo taken on February 11, 2020. Photo: Nguyen Khanh / Tuoi Tre

P.V.T., who runs a veterinary drugstore in Son Loi, said he has never experienced such a situation in his 50 years of life.

According to T., authorities in the commune have promoted self-protection against the COVID-19 from day one when the earliest infected cases were confirmed there.

While the lockdown is unprecedented, life in Son Loi has only been affected to a certain extent, he said.

“We still do our jobs, including farm work and house building,” T. said.

Only some public activities such as playing sports at the communal culture house and friendly volleyball games among the villages are temporarily suspended.

Likewise, celebrations such as longevity wishing ceremonies – a common cause for community-wide partying in rural Vietnam – are downscaled with fewer invitees.

T. said that residents in Son Loi have been passing words of encouragement around – via non-contact channels such as text messages and phone calls – to wish one another a healthy lifestyle and good mentality during the lockdown.

N.T.K., a staff member working at the People’s Committee of Binh Xuyen District, told Tuoi Tre that residents from Son Loi who are working in other neighborhoods have been allowed to take partially-paid leave from work to return home for the quarantine.

Meanwhile, locals have been keeping themselves updated on COVID-19 through the Internet.

They shared with Tuoi Tre that they have sensed “discrimination” from people outside Vinh Phuc.

A resident said they have heard people dubbing Son Loi “Vietnam’s Wuhan.”

“I don’t know why people can show empathy to another country but turn their back on their compatriots,” complained V., a seller at a small market in Son Loi.

“Everyone is afraid of the illness but our people, even those returning from Wuhan, are not at fault. None of us want to spread the disease.”

A photo on Facebook captures a notice posted on the entrance of a hotel that says customers from Vinh Phuc Province are not welcomed on the premises.

A photo on Facebook captures a notice posted on the entrance of a hotel that says customers from Vinh Phuc Province are not welcomed on the premises.

In fact, people in Vinh Phuc said they have been strictly following guidance on preventing the COVID-19 epidemic, such as wearing medical masks in public places.

The province is also giving away face masks to workers at factories and has installed hand sanitizer dispensers at malls, hospitals, and other public sites.

The provincial authorities also established 12 medical teams comprising of 160 volunteer doctors, nurses, and medical staff to strengthen support for Son Loi.

More than 120 locals living away at the time of lockdown have voluntarily returned to the commune for quarantine. Over 190 others remained outside of the commune as of Monday morning.

The 120 people have been inquired for their whereabouts and whom they have interacted with in recent days for further monitoring.

In Son Loi, 14 checkpoints have been set up at its entrances and are in operation 24 hours a day. The entire commune has been disinfected with Chloramine B.

Apart from the 10,600 people under quarantine in Son Loi, Binh Xuyen District has 102 others isolated at a military-run site, more than 40 quarantined at a clinic, and about 100 under home quarantine, according to the district’s chairman Nguyen Minh Trung.

“The mental health of the people in the quarantined area is generally stable,” Trung told Tuoi Tre, adding that local authorities have ensured enough food supply for the isolated residents.

“If there are no new patients, we will be able to lift the lockdown for the 10,600 people in Son Loi in ten days."

The novel coronavirus disease, which is now named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), has killed 1,775 people and infected over 71,000 globally since it first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei Province in December 2019, according to the South China Morning Post.

Vietnam has so far confirmed 16 cases of the viral infection, seven of whom have fully recovered and been discharged from the hospital.

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