We arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam on January 14th. Little did we know that our lives would be altered quickly. It was a week before the Lunar New Year. The school children in Vietnam were on break for the holiday. They would not return to school for the duration of our time in Vietnam. As of today, they have not returned to school. While schools in Vietnam closed in January, US schools remained open until mid-March.
It was interesting to observe the COVID-19 outbreak from Vietnam, outside the lens of the American television news feeds. I would check my news app and Twitter feed most mornings to stay aware of the spread of the virus around the world. It was disheartening to read about the tens of thousands infected in China. It became frightening to see the spread of the virus across Asia and around the world. I observed the measures put in place by the many infected countries around the world, and I was alarmed that America seemed to do nothing.
Vietnam quickly adopted measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Like I previously mentioned, they closed schools after the Lunar New Year in mid-January, just as they had done in China. On February 1st, the Vietnamese government declared an epidemic and stopped all flights to and from China. By early March, our favorite local cafe quickly posted a sign and required patrons to wash their hands before stepping up to the counter. The supermarket where we did our weekly shopping instituted hand washing and body temperature checks upon entering the store.
I checked a Vietnam travel site daily for updates on their increasing precautions and restrictions; the total number of infections hovered around 40 cases nationwide. The Vietnamese government cancelled festivals and closed all tourist attractions. On February 23rd, Vietnam had a song and video about handwashing go viral. As the virus continued to spread across the globe, mandatory medical declarations and a 14-day quarantine were required for all inbound travellers to Vietnam from outbreak areas. On March 22nd, Vietnam suspended all tourist visas.
Our life was pretty normal in Da Nang, despite the increased awareness regarding COVID-19. We could go grocery shopping when we wanted and were going to the gym and the beach regularly. We felt very fortunate to be in Vietnam. People were taking the virus seriously, and as a result there remained very few cases.
Shortly after our departure on March 22nd Vietnam issued a quarantine order, except for retrieving essentials like food, medicine and medical care. The quarantine remains in place to date. No gathering of more than two people is allowed in public. The government also began a testing campaign for anyone arriving from outside Vietnam on March 8th or later. Currently, Vietnam has 268 total cases with 177 people recovered and 0 deaths.
As spring break approached in America, students were still going to school and people were still going to work. The US didn’t declare a national emergency until March 13th, a month and a half after Vietnam had declared it an epidemic. Only 7 states and D.C. had closed its schools at that time. St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated in packed bars, and spring breakers filled the beaches. No one wore masks, no one wore gloves, and few people seemed to take the threat seriously.
The day before our departure from Da Nang we made one last trip to Mega Market. We bought supplies for our 48 hours of transit, which included two small bottles of hand sanitizer, one large bottle of hand sanitizer (since we knew this was sold out in America), wet wipes, two reusable cloth masks, and a box of nitrile gloves. Our friend had already shipped us an entire box of disposable surgical masks that we would be bringing with us too. We also bought snacks to minimize our need for transactions going through the airports.You can read about the catalyst of our disturbing and abrupt departure from Vietnam in my previous post here.
There was exactly one other car curbside when we arrived at Da Nang International Airport on March 22nd. The airport was deserted. There was no check-in line. We walked to the only open concession counter where a single employee was working. We sat outside to drink our coffee before going through the empty security line. Only three other travelers sat outside with us. Three.
The first leg of our flight was from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City. As we waited out our first 8 hour layover we observed the vast majority of people wearing masks in the airport terminal. The only people I observed not wearing masks were westerners, both young and old. Most of them had the masks, since they were required but had them around their wrist or pulled down below their nose and mouth.
My wife and I wore masks as we waited, unless it was to eat or drink. We obsessively used our hand sanitizer and thoroughly washed our hands whenever possible. We wore nitrile gloves as we boarded our plane and wiped down our seatbelts, arm rests and tray tables. We wore our masks for the duration of our flight, except to eat and drink.
Our next layover was another 8 hours in Doha. You could see the few people that were travelling sorting into their home-country bound flights. On our final leg from Doha to Miami, the number of people wearing masks plummeted. Thankfully the flight was one third full, allowing us an entire row to ourselves. Throughout the entirety of the flight, we watched and listened to people coughing while not wearing their masks.
As our plane reached the jetway in MIA people crowded into the aisles, eliminating any social distancing. We were all eager to get off of the 16 hour flight. We were held up at the exit as they were handing out a medical questionnaire that had to be completed before deplaning. All the passengers stood shoulder to shoulder, filling out the questionnaires, coughing, and breathing on each other, mask free. “We don’t need no stinking masks, this is America.”
As we walked off the jetway, we were met by private company EMTs. Their job was apparently to collect our questionnaires, and to confirm our answers. Have you been to Wuhan, China? Do you have a cough? Do you have a fever? If you checked the “No” box to all of these questions, they handed you a piece of paper with the link to the CDC website, and recommended that you self-quarantine for 14 days. That was the extent of our medical screening entering America. Waiting at baggage claim there were practically no people wearing masks anymore. This was America. Apparently the rationale was that COVID-19 germs can’t infect you once you set foot onto US soil.
My wife and I picked up our rental car, made a stop in the driveway of her aunt’s house to pick up a couple items and waved to her family from across the yard. We then drove three hours up the Florida turnpike to self-quarantine at a relative’s house we were fortunate enough to be able to stay at. When we arrived in Miami on March 23rd, only 9 states in America had issued quarantine orders. For most it seemed like a suggestion, rather than an order. Beaches, parks, and basketball courts were crowded. People flooded to stores to panic-buy, toilet paper and water. Two of the least essential items.
The next morning we went to Publix, to buy a two week supply of groceries. We were the only people wearing a mask and gloves in the supermarket. The other customers and employees would literally move away when we walked down the aisles. At this time Florida had still only issued shelter-in-place orders in three counties, statewide. We were not in one of those counties. When we arrived in Florida there were a little over 2,000 cases statewide. Today there are over 24,000 cases.
There are still 5 states with no quarantine orders at all and 3 more with partial quarantine orders. When we landed in Miami on March 23, there were 44,056 cases nationwide. Today there are over 710,000 known cases in America.
The CDC and White House changed their recommendation on wearing masks in public places. On April 3rd the White House recommended people wear masks during its daily press briefing. Immediately after the statement the POTUS reiterated it was merely a recommendation, not a requirement, and he was not going to follow the recommendation.
The White House continues to talk about the importance of lifting the quarantine restrictions to restore economic stability. This is against the health experts’ advice while we still do not have the systems or means in place to appropriately test patients. The daily totals of infections and deaths continue to set new records.
Vietnam has a population of about 95 million, while the US has roughly 328 million. Let’s round up and say the US has 3.5 times more people than Vietnam. Vietnam has 268 known total cases of COVID-19 while the US has 710,000+. That is more than 2,500 times the cases. So for each person that has been infected in Vietnam, there are 2,500 Americans that have been infected.
Vietnam has a GDP per capita of $2,566 USD, compared to the US $62,794. The average salary in Vietnam is $148 per month. Americans average $2750 per month. These are just quick google search comparisons to give some perspective. I am not trying to convince you these are the only markers for comparison. Which country do you think should be able to better manage a pandemic? Which country has more resources? Which country has more funding for prevention and treatment?
Excuse me, I need to order more toilet paper.
A timeline comparing precautions in Vietnam vs. USA:
- December 31, 2019: China reports looking into a respiratory infection in Wuhan.
- January 21, 2020: First known case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the USA, Washington state.
- January 25: Lunar New Year. Vietnam keeps schools closed going forward.
- February 1: Vietnam declares an epidemic and suspends all flights to and from China.
- February 2: US travel ban from China goes into effect, EXCEPT for US residents, family members and spouses.
- March 7: Vietnam requires a health declaration for ALL passengers entering Vietnam.
- March 8: Vietnam begins a testing campaign for everyone entering Vietnam, effective immediately.
- March 11: USA expands travel ban to Schengen countries, excluding the UK and Ireland, excluding US residents. WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic
- March 13: USA declares a national emergency. Seven states and D.C. close schools.
- March 17: St Patrick’s Day — people pack bars. POTUS asks people to work from home if possible, to postpone unnecessary travel and to limit gatherings to 10 people.
- March 22: We depart Da Nang. Vietnam suspended entry to ALL foreigners and placed restrictions on Vietnamese citizens, and mandatory, centralized 14-day quarantine is implemented based on exposure or point of origin of the traveler
- March 23: We arrived in Miami. Only nine states in the USA have quarantine orders. Spring breakers crowd beaches.
- April 1: Vietnam begins nationwide social distancing and isolation. People are only permitted to leave their home for essential needs like food, medicine and medical care. All passenger & public buses, taxis & contract cars are not permitted. All people must wear face masks in public places, at airports and on flights. Roadside checkpoints are in place.
- April 3: White House reverses its recommendation on wearing masks, POTUS states he will not be doing it, and reiterates it is only a recommendation
- April 18: USA still has 5 states with no quarantine orders, and 3 states with partial quarantine orders. Vietnam: 268 cases. US: 710,000+ cases.