Health authorities carry out COVID-19 tests on residents of Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo by: Trn Lê Lâm / VNA / Str / Latin America News Agency via Reuters

MANILA — With one of the lowest number of cases and deaths worldwide, Vietnam’s COVID-19 journey has stood out in Southeast Asia and across the world. As of Oct. 9, Vietnam counted 1,100 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths, and it has recorded no local transmission now for over a month.

The government has largely been credited for the country’s success in keeping COVID-19 transmission rates under control due to its swift decision-making, effective public health messaging, and aggressive contact tracing — although not without criticism.

But as in other countries, movement restrictions and social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 affect people’s livelihood. Some households rely on relief for their basic necessities. Others, such as informal workers unable to present documentation to access government relief, rely on charity for assistance.

United Nations agencies as well as international and local NGOs help fill gaps in the response, some in coordination with government agencies or local authorities. But uncertainties because of COVID-19 means that the sector will have to face fundraising challenges in the long run.

“We have funding to work on HIV, we have funding to work on malaria. But we don't have the funding to address the ... general vulnerabilities of the poorest people.”

— Dr. Khuất Thị Hải Oanh, executive director, Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives

Filling the gaps

Vulnerable and often marginalized populations, who, for a number of reasons, are not able to access government-provided relief are now a particular focus for many of the NGOs Devex spoke to.

The Centre for Sustainable Rural Development, a Vietnamese social organization that works with disadvantaged rural communities, provides food packs and loans to families struggling amid the pandemic in Central Vietnam, where a lot of people earn their living through farm work, said Tran Thi Thanh Toan, program manager for SRD in Central Vietnam.

The iSEE Institute, a local Vietnamese NGO, provides relief to members of the transgender community, many of whom work in the entertainment sector. The pandemic has gutted their source of income. Relief included food, some personal hygiene products, but also phone credits, which communities requested to access the Internet and read the news.

The government allocated 62 trillion Vietnamese dong, roughly $2.6 billion, for social assistance, said Dr. Khuất Thị Hải Oanh, executive director of The Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, a local NGO that works through a network of local communities across the country. But the aid was largely inaccessible to those with no legal documentation or working in the informal sector.

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“Our recommendation [to the government] was that, that's great, wonderful. But that needs to also include the informal worker, because the people who work in [the] informal sector, in fact, are the ones who are most affected,” Oanh told Devex.

More than six months since the assistance was announced, many communities still have not received relief from the government program, according to SCDI’s Oanh and iSEE Institute Director Luong The-Huy.

The government’s narrative is that it doesn’t discriminate, but some of its regulations and conditions pose barriers to some members of the population, Luong said.

“The people who don't have any document to present [are] usually the most vulnerable people, the poorest people, because without an identification paper, you cannot have a proper job ... you can't go to school, you can't open a bank account, nothing,” Oanh said.

Ethnic minorities were also a focus of a number of program interventions.

The U.N. Population Fund conducts training on infection prevention and control, and emergency obstetric care, and provides fetal monitors in remote areas of the country’s Northern and Central Highlands, as well as in the coastal regions where a number of ethnic monitories reside. This is to ensure the continued provision of sexual and reproductive health care services, but also to help prevent maternal deaths among ethnic minorities.

At present, maternal mortality in ethnic minority locations are in the range of 100-150 per 100,000 live births, two to three times higher than the national ratio of 46 per 100,000 live births, said Naomi Kitahara, UNFPA country representative in Vietnam wrote to Devex in an emailed response.

Several aid agencies, including Plan International, also translate information material on COVID-19 produced by the Ministry of Health to several local languages spoken by ethnic minority groups. There are over 50 recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam speaking various languages.

Since the messages coming through the media are all in Vietnamese, it meant little for ethnic minority groups, said Sharon Kane, country director for Plan International Vietnam.

Outstanding concerns

Most restrictions imposed between July and August following an outbreak in the city of Da Nang — a tourist hotspot — have already been lifted, and the government has restarted some international flights, as part of efforts to restart the country’s economic recovery.

But the risk of another outbreak looms, and the next one might be more complicated than the last. That was the case in the last outbreak in which the country recorded 35 deaths. Until then, the country reported no community transmission for more than three months, said Dr. Kidong Park, country representative of the World Health Organization in Vietnam.

The July-August outbreak underscores the importance of vigilance, and the awareness that the lack of confirmed COVID-19 cases does not mean there is no virus transmission happening in communities, he said.

“No country [health system] is perfect,” Park said. Vietnamese authorities knew this and were well aware of the limitations of the country’s health system capacities. So they pursued the cheapest option to respond to the pandemic, which is prevention, he said.

Preventing an outbreak will be crucial, not just for the country’s economic recovery, but also for the people already struggling from the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Farming communities in rural Vietnam that travel to Ho Chi Minh city to find work to supplement their income are no longer able to do so, and a number of girls have not gone back to school, Kane said. There’s a real risk that some of them have gone to do farm labor instead of going back to school, or entered into early marriage, she said.

Aid organizations are now looking at how to help communities affected by the pandemic through recovery programs and how to help them become less vulnerable to the next crisis. SCDI, for instance, gives small business owners in-kind capital — such as tea for tea sellers and lottery tickets for lottery sellers — to help them restart their livelihoods. It has also started helping families to purchase health insurance, so they don’t go into debt every time a member of the family gets sick.

But the challenge is funding. Already, some local NGOs are facing difficulties in fundraising.

“Now in our development phase, we are kind of anemic, because we don't have enough resources. The need is huge, and development work requires long-term effort … [but] you don't see [much] opportunity for funding for development, at least none yet that we have [been] successful,” Oanh said.

“We have funding to work on HIV, we have funding to work on malaria. But we don't have the funding to address the ... general vulnerabilities of the poorest people,” she said.

Meanwhile, international NGOs are still able to operate with their budgets for the year, and none has shuttered offices or significantly downsized, said Marko Lovrekovic, managing co-director of the VUFO-NGO Resource Centre, a member organization that helps to build the joint voices and coordinate the work of international NGOs in Vietnam.

But some already feel and expect difficulties in fundraising given the global impact of the pandemic combined with the limitations for international NGOs in fundraising in Vietnam. Plan as, an international NGO, isn’t able to fundraise locally in Vietnam, Kane said.

She said fundraising has been “reasonably difficult” for 2020, and NGOs are concerned that the economic impacts of the pandemic could further affect fundraising and the priority given by governments to development assistance.

Some international NGOs are starting to explore potential partnerships with the corporate sector, but Lovrekovic said the legal rules there are still not clear in terms of this kind of engagement.

International NGOs are largely seen in Vietnam as donors themselves, Lovrekovic said, adding that in 2019, the community spent an estimated $300 million for aid projects in the country.

“But when they [the government] realize that that may change, and they'll see this year when [the year is] finished, they may be more willing to change the legislation and enable us legally to engage with corporates,” he said.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.