Vietnam’s Patient #1342

For a government that has lauded itself over its handling of COVID-19 via state-controlled media, Vietnam reported its first “community-transmitted” case since September this past Friday. A male English teacher working in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was unknowingly infected with COVID-19 by a friend who works as a flight attendant for Vietnam Airlines, Vietnam’s patient #1,342. According to VNExpress, “the flight attendant had returned to Vietnam from Japan on November 14 and was quarantined for four days at a facility managed by Vietnam Airlines in HCMC” and “after two tests showed he was negative for the coronavirus, he was released and asked to isolate at home.”

The government of Vietnam was quick to place blame on the male flight attendant. Nguyễn Tấn Bỉnh, director of the Department of Health in HCMC, stated the male flight attendant had contracted the virus at Vietnam Airlines’ quarantine facility after intruding into the space of a colleague who later tested positive for COVID-19 on November 26th and then violated self-quarantine rules.

Then at a meeting of the government held yesterday, Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, requested for strict punishment of those who violate COVID-19 prevention rules while the Department of Health of HCMC shut-down the local Vietnam Airlines quarantine facility.

Those orders, in addition to the government’s agreement to immediately suspend all commercial international flights, were obviously knee-jerk, reactive decisions similar to how parents ground their child for missing curfew.

Rather than ostracizing the male flight attendant or attacking Vietnam Airlines and its staff, the Vietnamese community should ask its government about why it happened in the first place. Why was Vietnam Airlines, a registered air carrier — not a healthcare provider, allowed to operate a private quarantine facility? Why were Vietnam Airlines flight attendants given special, preferential quarantine protocols that weren’t similarly given to repatriated Vietnamese citizens and approved foreign experts? Who approved those decisions?

Some argue that pilots and flight attendants should be given special, preferential quarantine treatment because if they had to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine procedures that’s required of repatriated citizens and foreign experts, there wouldn’t be any pilots and flight attendants available for duty.

While that rationale makes sense only if pilots and flight attendants are permitted to work after they are released from Vietnam Airlines quarantine facility and the airline is short-staffed despite major flight reductions, the government could have also given permission for COVID-19-negative pilots and flight attendants to return directly to work after four days in a government-run quarantine facility and ensured their transport to and back from the airport — a nominal cost that could be borne by the airline. Although that policy wouldn’t favor pilots and flight attendants and employers like Vietnam Airlines might make the case that they’d quit, it’s important to be realistic that those jobs are highly sought after in Vietnam, held with high-esteem in the culture and pay significantly more than USD $150 (VND 3,470,000) per month, the average monthly salary of a local Vietnamese person.

For an authoritarian government that has demonstrated its power of authority during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, why is it not taking any accountability for its decisions? The government of Vietnam is just as at fault as both Vietnam Airlines and the male flight attendant.

It knows what’s best, right?

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