‘Hunger was something we read about’: lockdown leaves Vietnam’s poor without food
When the strictest lockdown to date was imposed in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Thi Hao*, a factory worker, was told that the government would keep her and her family well fed – but for two months they have eaten little more than rice and fish sauce.
She was put on unpaid leave from her job in July, while her husband, a construction worker, has not worked for months. They are behind on their rent, with another payment due soon.
“I’m trying to hold on for as long as possible but I don’t know what will come next,” she says. “I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words. I want to ask why there’s been no support.
“The government said they would send help to people like me but there’s been nothing,” she says. “Everyone living around me is hanging on by a thread.”
Tran is not alone. Vietnam’s biggest city is under a tough lockdown, with people not allowed to leave the house even for food. Current restrictions could last until 15 September, when the city has proposed resuming economic activity.
Even before the stay at home order on 23 August, Tran, like millions of others, was falling into debt. The government promised to feed everyone and enlisted the military to help deliver supplies to those in need, but vast swaths of the population have received nothing. Last week, Vietnamese media reported that more than 100 people in one district had protested over the lack of help.
Vietnam had been hailed as a global success story in tackling the pandemic. As countries around the world mourned their dead and imposed nationwide lockdowns, the Vietnamese government kept the virus at bay by relying on strict quarantine measures, contact tracing and localised lockdowns. By early May, Vietnam had recorded under 4,000 infections and 35 deaths.
Now, the Delta variant is causing chaos in Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring provinces. The past month has seen 299,429 new cases and 9,758 deaths in the country. In Ho Chi Minh City, the number of deaths accounts for 4.2% of recorded cases; more than 200 people die and 5,000 new cases are reported daily in the city. The neighbouring province of Binh Duong is seeing similar numbers.
As tighter restrictions have been gradually introduced since the beginning of June, it is the poor who have been hit the hardest. Factories and markets were ordered to close, and with them went thousands of jobs. Taxi drivers, street food vendors, factory and construction workers who were already near the poverty line have been unable to make money for months and are trapped in precarious and crowded housing in Covid hotspots.
Official statistics state that 3-4 million people in Ho Chi Minh City alone have plunged into financial difficulty due to the pandemic.
Civil society organisations are being flooded with tens of thousands of requests for food every day and cannot cope with demand. Food Bank Vietnam, a social enterprise run by Nguyen Tuan Khoi, who also has his own business, is supporting 10,000 people a day. Its website and social media channels get twice or three times as many requests.
Numbers started to increase last month, but they have shot up in the past two weeks, says Nguyen. “This pandemic has affected people’s resilience. The complete lockdown has caused disruption to food supply. We, and other charities, are facing difficulties in reaching people in need. The demand is huge.”
In his 20 years of charitable work, he has never experienced anything like this. “The Vietnamese have been going through the most difficult days in the last few weeks,” he says. “I have never seen this amount of death and loss, and I thought I never would. Before the pandemic, we had hunger and poor people, but at least food was easy for many. I was born after the war, so difficulties around death and hunger were something we heard about and read in books. Now I can understand the hardship.”
Saigon Children, which helps disadvantaged young people into education and work, has been taken aback by the demand. Damien Roberts, the charity’s director, says: “Usually we’re building schools, doing special needs. Now 90% of our work is Covid relief. [Hunger] is very widespread at the moment.
“I don’t know the numbers but we’ve helped 16,000 people in the last eight weeks and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
The messaging apps Zalo and SOSmap.net each list tens of thousands of people in need throughout the city.
City authorities have, as of 26 August, reportedly provided support including 1.2-1.5m dong (about £40) and a bag of essential foods to more than 1.2 million people in difficulty. They are proposing spending an additional 9.2bn dong to support people in lockdown.
Running parallel to the hunger crisis is a health system that has become overwhelmed. Hospitals are short-staffed, there is not enough medicine, and oxygen supplies are only just holding out. Social media is awash with stories of people calling for help and not getting it, and disturbing pictures and videos of crematorium queues and of people collapsed on the street.
Dr Tran Hoang Dang Khoa, an intensive-care doctor in a hospital set up for the worst Covid cases, is responsible for 14 patients on each shift and has been left exhausted. The 700 beds are always full, he says, with every day bringing more cases; half of those he treats die.
“Our health system wasn’t prepared for this, and we haven’t reached the peak,” he says. “We lack everything – staff, medication and ventilators – but I don’t know who to blame.”
The current situation also reflects delays to Vietnam’s vaccination programme, according to Dr Nguyen Thu Anh, a public health expert with the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Hanoi. “The vaccine acceptance rate is high,” she says, “but we don’t have enough vaccines coming into the country. Regardless of the commitment from vaccine providers, as well as Covax, the actual number of vaccines arriving is lower than what was planned.”
According to the health ministry, up to 1 September, Vietnam had rolled out 20m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Just 3.6% of the population of 75 million adults have received two jabs. In Ho Chi Minh City, with an estimated population of 10 to 13 million, 5.8 million adults have received their first dose and 337,134 have had both jabs. The programme was besieged by cumbersome bureaucracy, which resulted in delays, according to a statement from the ministry in June.
Efforts are concentrating on Ho Chi Minh City, but as Nguyen says, the virus has already spread. “The problem is we are trying to allocate vaccines to Ho Chi Minh City. The number allocated to other provinces is quite small, so it’s another challenge.”
Outside the major cities, healthcare provision and infrastructure is much worse, and doctors and academics fear the effect of Covid on communities there.
Back in her 15 sq metre room in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran, her husband and eight-year-old son are stuck in a building housing hundreds of other factory workers. She is desperate to go back to work. The new school term is due to start online but she has no computer and, for now, her son’s education will have to take a back seat.
“I can’t even begin to think about my son’s education right now,” she says. “I’m worried about getting our next meal and this month’s rent.”
Across town, Nguyen Lam Ngoc Truc, 21, also needs to be able to earn money again. She lives in a slum on the riverbank with 30-40 other families. She sold street food to students but has not been able to work since June. Her mother, father and brother are also out of work. They have survived on handouts of rice and instant noodles from charities and neighbours.
In her neighbourhood lives the city’s vast migrant population, many of whom are unregistered and therefore unaccounted for and invisible to the authorities.
“The government should keep their promise when they said they would support people,” she says. “They should give food to everyone. No one is telling us what is going on.”
* Names have been changed to protect their identities