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The rise of Vietnam could well represent one of the shifts in global balance of power that takes place after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vietnam’s response to the novel coronavirus has been one of the most successful in the world. Since mid-April, the country’s only cases of new infection were among people from overseas in quarantine after entering the country, although local infections have been growing in recent weeks. There have been some 500 cases of infection in total, and one death. Domestic air travel routes have all been restored to pre-coronavirus status.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has announced that international air travel will resume with countries that have not confirmed new cases of infection for 30 days or more. Vietnam Airlines has said it will resume operations between Vietnam and South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam was the first country with which Japan relaxed immigration restrictions (for business travelers) that had been imposed to contain the infections.

Why has Vietnam’s response to the pandemic been so successful? According to a friend of mine, an investor with close ties to Asian business leaders, Vietnamese acquaintances attribute the country’s success to the “Honda effect:” “We’re a people who go everywhere on Honda motorcycles. We’re accustomed to wearing masks to keep out the dust. I think that is what saved us this time.”

Is it the mask culture, common to the countries of East Asia, that made the difference? People take the initiative to prevent the spread of the virus by wearing masks everywhere, diligently washing hands, avoiding crowds, and maintaining social distancing — even without orders from authorities.

A change in behavior by each and every citizen is the key to responding to the pandemic. Protecting oneself protects society — and it is precisely by protecting society as a whole that one is protected. It would appear that in Vietnam, the society and government were able to cooperate effectively.

According to the U.K.-based research firm YouGov, which conducts weekly surveys of 26 countries and regions, the citizens of Vietnam have the highest levels of COVID-19 awareness, and the highest evaluations of their government’s response. A full 95 percent of Vietnamese citizens believe their government is “responding well” to the pandemic, whereas only 39 percent of Japanese give similarly high marks to their own government.

But which of the government’s measures was in fact decisive in actually containing the spread of the virus? The Vietnamese government’s Jan. 31 declaration that Vietnam would “decouple” from China may have been crucial.

On that day, Vietnam decided on “three nos,” which were implemented from Feb. 1. First, the government restricted travel to and from all of China. Second, it stopped issuing tourist visas to foreign travelers — including all Chinese who had been in any part of China within the previous two weeks. Third, it suspended all flights to and from the affected regions of China (later, on March 22, all foreign travelers were prevented from entering Vietnam). Vietnam and China share a 1,400 km border, and their economies are deeply interdependent with each other. China is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner, after the United States.

At the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Vietnamese government immediately heeded the warning of Dr. Carlo Urbani, a World Health Organization official stationed in Hanoi. Infected persons were placed in complete isolation, contact tracing was conducted, and new border measures (strengthening PCR testing systems at airports) were introduced. The outbreak was successfully contained as a result.

This time, Vietnam made use of the lessons it learned from the SARS outbreak. As soon as an infected person was identified, he or she was placed in a state-owned facility such as a university dormitory or military barracks. All close contacts of the infected person were also placed on “stand-by” in these facilities, even if they were asymptomatic at the time. In early April, when only 240 people had been infected, 45,000 people were under quarantine. Whenever a small cluster of infections emerged, the entire village was sealed off from the outside world.

Vietnam also employed the metaphor of war (“the battle against the coronavirus”) to unite its people against the virus. Although their enemy is the coronavirus itself, both the government and the people of Vietnam saw the shadow of China in the background. Over the course of Vietnam’s history, most national crises have come “from north of the border.” This time it was no different.

A Japanese diplomat asked a senior Vietnamese government official how Vietnam intends to win the battle against the coronavirus. The reply consisted of just two words: “China literacy.” The Vietnamese official went on to explain: “China literacy is about how well we are able to understand China. The Chinese government won’t give out accurate numbers, so we can’t simply accept what they tell us.”

Don’t take what the Chinese government says at face value. Suspicion should always be the first response. Judge China’s intentions by its actions, not its words. Up until mid-January, Chinese government officials maintained there was “no person-to-person transmission” of the novel coronavirus. That was suspicious. On March 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared “victory” in the fight against the virus. That assertion was equally suspicious. Indeed, “China literacy” has become the survival word of the 21st century.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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