Coronavirus: Asia

Ho Chi Minh City tense and anxious amid strict lockdown

Vegetable sellers in Ho Chi Minh City venture out stealthily to ply their trade despite Directive 16 that forbids public gatherings, as well as economic activities. PHOTO: JOANIK BELLALOU
Vegetable sellers in Ho Chi Minh City venture out stealthily to ply their trade despite Directive 16 that forbids public gatherings, as well as economic activities. PHOTO: JOANIK BELLALOU

For a month now, Ms Linh Ho, a vegetable seller in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinese district, has seen her earnings plummet.

"Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, I have had to hide to sell my products.

"But there is little chance to sell because my regular customers cannot find me," the 56-year-old told The Straits Times at her makeshift stall, hemmed in between a pair of umbrellas.

Vietnam's commercial capital has shut down almost all business and social activities since early this month, after thousands of Covid-19 cases were recorded.

It now accounts for the majority of cases in the country.

Following the closure of wet markets, including two wholesale centres which usually provide the city with food, residents can shop at only designated supermarkets.

Rumours of shortages have led to long lines for groceries.

When asked why she risked breaking the law by continuing to trade, Ms Linh, a mother of two, said: "I am not doing anything wrong. I do not steal or rob anyone.

"My family has been selling vegetables for 40 years. I have no other choice but to keep going."

Vietnam has generally managed to keep the number of coronavirus cases relatively low since the pandemic began, with strict border controls, mass testing and targeted lockdowns.

But fresh clusters have emerged in recent weeks, sparking concern.

In May, the authorities imposed lockdowns after Covid-19 cases were detected in the northern industrial cities of Bac Ninh and Bac Giang. Social distancing measures were also introduced in the nearby capital of Hanoi.

The spread of the virus towards other provinces, and especially Ho Chi Minh City in the south, prompted the government to implement Directive 16, which took effect on July 9 and forbids all commercial activities, as well as public gatherings.

As at yesterday, Ho Chi Minh City accounted for around 45,000 cases out of more than 68,000 nationwide.

While the majority of the cases were detected in areas already under quarantine, the authorities admitted that they had been unable to trace the chain of transmission for some patients.

For the past two weeks, the mood on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City has turned tense and anxious. Red and white striped tape mark out public spaces that are off-limits, as well as quarantine areas.

Residents have been on tenterhooks, as an entire area can be abruptly locked down for several weeks if a single case is detected.

Only the most vulnerable continue to appear on the deserted streets, desperate to make a living.

Mr Tuan Nguyen, 24, one of the many delivery workers still legally allowed to work, fears for his health.

"Every day, I have to meet a lot of people, and I don't know if they have Covid-19 or not.

"I just want to stay home and be safe, but my company does not allow delivery workers to take a break," he told The Straits Times.

Meanwhile, the city's nine million residents have to negotiate the myriad rules, fines and roadblocks. Around 300 police checkpoints have been set up and mobile police regularly patrol the streets.

Since early this month, the total amount of fines collected has risen to US$350,000 (S$479,000), with offences such as going out for non-essential matters attracting a penalty from US$43 to US$130.

Residents are allowed to leave home only to shop for groceries and attend to health-related issues. In Thu Duc district, some were fined for walking their dogs, while repeat offenders in other cases were threatened with water cuts.

Halting all economic activities has left daily wage earners such as street peddlers and private trash collectors with no income, and it is as yet unclear when these activities can resume.

The Vietnamese government had late last month promised a new stimulus package worth 26 trillion dong (S$1.5 billion) to help informal workers and poor households.

But the scheme has been criticised for its complicated procedures. Mr Bui Ho, Miss Linh's son, explained that the family has not received any government aid.

The 28-year-old, who worked in a packaging shop prior to the recent outbreak, has been unemployed for three weeks.

"We went to the People's Committee (government administrators), but it seemed our situation did not qualify for the promised help. If the pandemic does not end soon, many will starve," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'Ho Chi Minh City tense and anxious amid strict lockdown'. Subscribe