Vietnam records first coronavirus death, as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City close non-essential businesses

Residents wait to be tested at a makeshift rapid testing centre in Hanoi, on July 31, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Vietnam recorded its first death from the coronavirus yesterday (Fri), as it shuttered bars and suspended events in its biggest cities in an effort to contain the threat from Danang, the epicentre of the latest outbreak.

The coastal tourism hub logged 82 new Covid-19 infections yesterday (Fri), the single biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases. Many of them were individuals who had been isolated since new community transmissions were first detected over the weekend.

The patient who died was a 70-year-old man who appeared to have contracted the virus in Danang, according to the official Vietnam News Agency.

Before this outbreak, Vietnam had not recorded any local transmission for close to 100 days and appeared to have emerged from the pandemic ahead of its South-east Asia peers through a system of mass quarantine and testing.

With its borders closed to almost all foreigners since March, locals had lowered their guard about wearing masks and social distancing in public. Many also redoubled their holidays around the country on discounted airfares and hotel rates offered by businesses trying to restart the pandemic-battered tourism industry.

Danang is now in the middle of a 15-day lockdown, with even takeaway food and drink services suspended. The authorities are also converting a stadium into a field hospital. Apart from this, all construction work in Danang has been halted with effect from yesterday, according to local media reports.

Danang resident Huynh Viet said the atmosphere in Danang was calm.

"Initially, people panicked a bit and bought up all the food they could," the 32-year-old information technology professional told The Straits Times. "But after three days, they have calmed down and are now staying home."

In a dispatch dated Thursday, Mr Le Trung Chinh, the vice-chairman of the Danang people's committee said the source of this outbreak has still not been identified.

Prof Guy Thwaites, the Ho Chi Minh City-based director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, a clinical and public health research organisation, praised Vietnam's government for responding "quickly and decisively" to this outbreak.

"They are tracking or have isolated more than 80,000 people and there is a huge amount of testing being done," he told The Straits Times.

"The uncertainty rests in how far this has spread out in the community, because it's pretty clear the infection probably had been in Danang or the region for the last few weeks undetected."

In the nearby tourist haunt of Hoi An, in Quang Nam province, a similar stay-home order is also in place.

In the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, nightlife essentially came to a halt from yesterday with the closure of bars and clubs, and the suspension of festivals, fairs and non-urgent meetings. Public gatherings of more than 30 people are banned, mirroring similar restrictions placed in the capital Hanoi earlier this week.

Since the start of the pandemic, Vietnam has recorded 546 infections.

Police have ramped up efforts to ferret out foreigners and locals who have evaded the mandatory quarantine by entering Vietnam illegally. The country shares a porous border of over 4,500km with Laos, China and Cambodia.

"It's extremely difficult to stop people coming in. And it's very difficult for a country to isolate itself from a pandemic that is affecting the rest of the world," said Prof Thwaites. "This was almost inevitable."

Despite the latest setback, Vietnam's economy is poised to grow at around 2.8 per cent for the year if the global situation improves, said the World Bank on Thursday. A less favourable external environment will still see it eke out a 1. 5 per cent growth.

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