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An Inside Look at Da Nang, Vietnam’s Covid-19 Epicenter

Da Nang has become the epicenter of a new COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam, with many of the new cases originating from the tourist hot spot.

Social distancing measures, originally for 15 days, began in the city on July 28. They now remain in place until further notice. Currently, only basic services such as pharmacies, hospitals, ATMs and supermarkets are open. Da Nang’s already-delicate tourism economy has once again been roadblocked, and the city’s streets and beaches have mostly emptied.

So far there have been 1,007 coronavirus cases nationwide, and 25 fatalities have been recorded as of Friday, August 21. All of the deaths have occurred in central Vietnam.

“In the beginning of this new lockdown some people here found it hard to accept because Vietnam is known for being safe and having no cases for 99 days, but I’m proud of what the people and the government are doing,” said Lien Nguyen, a businesswoman who runs Good Waffle, a restaurant in Da Nang, amongst other ventures.

An ambulance arrives at a city hotel to take people in for testing. Photo by Hugh Bohane.

Prior to July 25, there had been no new infections for over three months, until one person tested positive for the virus in Da Nang. Most of the ensuing new cases have been linked to three hospitals here. After the outbreak began, about 80,000 visitors left Da Nang for other parts of Vietnam, particularly Hanoi and Saigon.

In the capital, 18,000 returnees have still not been tested, while last week, Saigon officials said about 3,000 residents who had visited Da Nang had failed to get tested yet and could face criminal charges for further delay.

Late last month, the acting Minister of Health, Nguyen Thanh Long, said that based on results from infected patients, this is a different mutation of the virus than the one seen in Vietnam earlier in the year. It is still uncertain how this outbreak began, and any official scientific links have yet to be confirmed, while the country's borders have been closed, except for special circumstances, since March.

Local authorities are now taking action to test the entire population of Da Nang for coronavirus, approximately 1.1 million people. Additionally, medical workers have sped up testing with 5,000 residents tested in a single day in one high-risk zone, Son Tra District.

Tien Son Sports Center, in Da Nang’s center, was converted into a field hospital and opened on August 12, and will be able to hold up to 2,000 patients if required. Approximately 100 worked tirelessly to finish the mammoth task, a security guard at the facility said.

Workers at the Tien Son field hospital. Photo by Hugh Bohane.

I also spoke with Vietnamese residents and expats in and around one of the hot zones of Da Nang, who said they had to take mandatory blood tests and stay inside their building. The logic behind the blood testing is that it is part of the government’s plan to test the population as fast as possible. The blood tests can determine whether a person had the virus before or is positive now, much faster than the swab tests.

In Ngu Hanh Son, a district close to My Khe beach, one street experienced a total lockdown on July 30 due to at least one case being detected there. The street An Thuong 15 was cordoned off, and guards and medics wearing hazmat suits could be seen going door-to-door. The barricades were removed only a few days ago, which has brought a sense of relief to residents. However, a few other streets have been barricaded around the city where possible other cases have also been found.

“We kind of expected that there was a possibility of a second lockdown; it’s an inconvenience, but I am happy with the way Vietnam has handled it so far,” said Jos Aguiar, an Australian working for a Vietnamese property group.

Aguiar's sentiments echoed what many other residents have said about how proactive the Vietnamese government has been in handling this second wave of the virus.

Meanwhile, a small group of expats living in Da Nang have been co-operating with local volunteers to donate food and drop it off at checkpoints to help city residents who are in need during this pandemic. Mike Harris, a Brit heading up the volunteer group, said that they hope to make these gatherings a weekly fixture.

Mike Harris (far left) with volunteers at a food checkpoint in Da Nang. Photo by Hugh Bohane.

Volunteers at a food checkpoint. Photo by Hugh Bohane.

Kenneth Atkinson is the founder of the international accounting firm Grant Thornton and a dual citizen of both the UK and Vietnam. He is also currently the vice-president of the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) in Vietnam, and has a front-row seat on the impact this latest outbreak will have on Vietnam’s economy.

“One of the things we were hoping was that domestic tourism would pump a little bit of light into the tourism and hospitality sector, and that’s of course been turned on its head now and we’ve seen a reluctance to travel even into places that haven’t been affected,” Atkinson said.

On a more positive note, Atkinson mentioned that in July there was a large increase in the public sector spending by the Vietnamese government, which was more than 50% of last year. The government has made commitments on huge infrastructure spending programs and if that can be achieved then that would add a significant stimulus to the economy and create more jobs.

Meanwhile, Lien, the Good Waffles owner, commented on the community spirit of the city: "I’m surprised at how well the hospitals are dealing with the pandemic, and a lot of people are happy to donate their time and money to help doctors, nurses and patients who are stuck at the hospital during this time."

While the general mood here on the ground in Da Nang is part Groundhog Day mixed with quarantine fatigue, Da Nangers have reasons to be hopeful that this might end soon if everyone maintains the stricter lockdown measures for now. Residents can pour themselves a Quarantini (an indoor martini) this weekend knowing that thanks to the hard-working medical staff in the hospitals, many patients have checked out after testing negative in recent days.

Moreover, the Deputy Minister of Health and his delegation have returned to Hanoi after a three-week stay and stated that the COVID-19 situation in both Da Nang and Quang Nam is “under control.” So much so that the local authorities have allowed construction workers to resume working again on building sites. Nonetheless, these are all positive signs that Da Nang might be returning to some form of normalcy and, hopefully, we might even be able to enjoy the beach and other attractions this fair city has to offer again shortly.

Windows light up in support of Da Nang at the Muong Thanh Hotel. Photo by Hugh Bohane.