By Paul Kennedy
On paper, there is very little the Cayman Islands and Vietnam actually have in common.
Separated by more than 10,000 miles, and with a time difference of exactly 12 hours, geographically speaking, they really are as opposite as can be.
The people, history, culture and landscapes of the two countries are also very different, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bowl of phở on sale in West Bay as much as you would struggle to get your hands on a plate of Cayman-style beef in the back streets of Hanoi.
That said, in recent weeks, I am starting to notice similarities in the way the two countries are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vietnam acted fast when the first case came to light in the country back in mid-January. Schools, universities and kindergartens at the time were closed anyway for the Tết Lunar Holidays, and to this day, they remain shut.
As if by magic, bottles of hand sanitisers miraculously appeared here, there and everywhere. Security guards at offices, shopping malls and apartment blocks were equipped with thermometers to check the temperatures of every single person entering.
Flights were drastically reduced and, before too long, eventually stopped all together. All new passengers arriving were immediately taken into quarantine for 14 days, bars and restaurants were closed to the public, and people were told to stay at home or face potential fines.
And to be fair to the powers that be here in Vietnam, their quick and tough actions seem to be doing the trick, so far.
As of Saturday, 11 April, the country has seen just 258 positive cases, with more than half of those, 144, making a full recovery, and zero deaths.
Let me repeat that, zero deaths.
That’s hard to get your head around really, especially as Vietnam shares a 745-mile border with China, and two-way trade between the two neighbours is nothing short of gargantuan.
There are a number of other measures Vietnam put in place that may or may not be appropriate in Cayman.
When a cluster of cases came to light (14 out of the first 16 nationwide) in a village in Vĩnh Phúc Province, north west of the capital city, the authorities closed it.
A barrier was constructed around its perimeter and the 10,000 or so residents were not allowed to leave for three weeks. Medics went in, treated the sick, and they all made a full recovery.
Guess what? No more cases have been detected in that community since.
Wearing face masks is also a very interesting point. Some argue they do not stop the spread of coronavirus, yet the government told the country everyone must wear one in public or face a fine.
It is worth noting, in a place where pollution is a problem and mopeds are the preferred mode of transport, most Vietnamese wear masks anyway. Now they all do.
A free cellphone app was created for residents in Hanoi to record their travel and medical history. It also shows the areas where positive patients have been found, and those of people they have come in contact with. And people who came in contact with them. And so on, and so on.
When an address is identified as being the home of a COVID-19 carrier, the army’s chemical unit arrive as quick as a flash to spray disinfectant on the streets and surrounding buildings.
On a lighter note, pop stars have recorded songs and dances that soon went viral on social media as the country tried to educate the younger generation about the importance of washing your hands and keeping a safe distance.
Rappers even produced tracks warning the public not to spread fake news online, an offence incidentally that carries an immediate fine of between VNĐ10-20 million (US$430-870).
All this hard work has played a vital role in stopping the spread of the virus and keeping the numbers of those infected at an incredible low.
Yet none of it could have been achieved without one very important factor, the role of the general public.
The majority of Vietnamese people have faith in the government to deal with the pandemic. They are trusting and, on the whole, follow the rules that are set.
When they were told to stay inside, the response was a resounding ‘OK’. When the government said there was plenty of food and supplies so no need to panic buy, people said, “No problem. We won’t panic buy.”
And when 10,000 people were told they couldn’t leave the village where they lived, they believed it was completely and utterly the right thing to do. No one complained
And that’s really, in my limited opinion, the best way to beat the virus. Do as you are told.
Vietnam is far from out of the woods and there is no room for complacency. In recent days, we have seen some people breaching social distancing rules, which led to Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc issuing a stern warning, and telling the authorities to step up regulations and issue more fines.
Once the pandemic eases, it will take a while for the economy to get back on its feet.
And rather like Cayman, Vietnam relies heavily on tourism and that could take a year, or even longer, to get back to normal.
Cayman is tiny with a minuscule fraction of the 96 million population Vietnam has, and from my seven or so years spent living there, I know it is a country where it is difficult to go unnoticed.
Politicians in the Cayman Islands are, more often than not, friends, drinking buddies and in some cases, relatives.
Everybody knows everybody. And that can be a very powerful weapon in the fight against COVID-19.
Help your neighbour. Offer support to those who need it most.
And, above all else, listen to the rules being set by those who know best, and follow them meticulously, despite what political reservations you may habour.
It might just save your life.
- Paul Kennedy is a multimedia journalist with Việt Nam News, a national daily newspaper. Previously he worked as a news producer for Cayman 27.