Double-Edged Sword: The Securitization of COVID Response in Vietnam

The stunning change in civil-military relations reflects how nervous the leaders in Hanoi are right now, as the pandemic deepens and the death toll continues to climb.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
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Double-Edged Sword: The Securitization of COVID Response in Vietnam A Vietnamese soldier stands guard on a deserted road in Ho Chi Minh City, after the government imposed a stricter lockdown until Sept. 16 to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, August 23, 2021.

On Aug. 20, the Vietnamese government announced that it would start deploying troops to assist in the response to the COVID-19 Delta variant in Ho Chi Minh City and adjacent provinces.

This was a stunning change in policy, and reflects just how nervous the leaders in Hanoi are right now, as the pandemic deepens, and the death toll continues to climb. It is a stark change in civil-military relations.

In 2020, Vietnam was the gold standard of the response to COVID-19. The country had limited medical facilities, but superlative public health capabilities, with a long history of responding to SARS-type viruses and other avian influenzas. The government did everything right: strict quarantines, thorough contact tracing, consistent and straightforward public health messaging, with appeals to patriotism.

And unlike the Philippines or Indonesia that had very securitized responses to the pandemic from the start, Vietnam’s response was led by public health officials. Vietnam’s generals were not put in charge of a medical health crisis, policy formulation, resource allocation, or enforcing quarantines through coercive measures. Indonesia and the Philippines did all of those things, and, as a result, had the highest case rates and fatality rates in the region.

While the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) opened up its bases as quarantine centers, and played a limited role in the distribution of aid to remote communities, the VPA was clearly in a supporting role. This only bolstered their already high standing in the public eye.

As a result, Vietnam weathered the first year of the pandemic exceptionally well. Until April 2021, Vietnam had only 2,900 total cases and a mere 35 deaths. The country remained largely open, and as such, Vietnam was the only country in Southeast Asia to see positive economic growth in 2020.

That bred complacency. Vietnam was surprisingly slow to shore up purchase contracts, get regulatory approval (even emergency-use authorizations) for vaccines, and invested too much in developing four separate vaccines indigenously, rather than working to license foreign mRNA vaccines, which it now has done.

A Vietnamese military personnel (R) checks the travel documents of a motorist at a checkpoint in Ho Chi Minh City, Aug.  23, 2021,  Credit: AFP
A Vietnamese military personnel (R) checks the travel documents of a motorist at a checkpoint in Ho Chi Minh City, Aug. 23, 2021, Credit: AFP
To date, Vietnam continues to have the lowest percentage of their population fully vaccinated in all of Southeast Asia.

Then the delta variant hit and case rates soared. Vietnam has had over 355,000 cases since May, and is currently averaging between 10,000-12,000 a day. The death toll has increased to 9,014 deaths.

The outbreak is concentrated in the south, with over half of the infections and 80 percent of fatalities in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), alone, overwhelming the medical system.

Thus the government’s surprise announcement of the deployment of 10,000 troops to the city and outlying regions.

Military Regions 7 (HCMC)  and 9 (Mekong Delta) have combined field hospitals with some 2,300 military personnel. And 500 soldiers from Military Region 7 began enforcing lockdown on Aug. 23.

The HCMC government had already requested 6,000 men from the local Military Region 7, including troops to be deployed to enforce the city’s lockdown and deliver food to needy communities.

Additional troops are being deployed from other regions: Military Region 5 (Da Nang-south central Vietnam), sent some 500 doctors and personnel. The VPA announced that it would deploy 1,000 VPA medical personnel from the north (they did not specify from which particular Military Region), including120 doctors from the VPA’s medical university and 180 of their students. By Aug. 23, they doubled the number of medics to be deployed to the south, along with 30 VPA ambulances. 

In addition, Military Region 7 is increasing its deployment of personnel (both medical and infantry) to neighboring provinces as the virus spreads, including 500 personnel to Binh Duong province, 300 to Tay Ninh province, and 12 military doctors to Long An province, the gateway to the Mekong Delta region.

VPA's storied reputation

Within days, more details emerged of the military’s expanding role, including the announcement that the VPA became the lead agency for the provision of food. VPA units are now assisting the city’s overwhelmed crematoriums. We should expect additional troops to be deployed, especially to some of the surrounding cities. The Ministry of National Defense is activating 35,000 militia.

The ViPA has a storied reputation in Vietnam and is clearly one of the most trusted political institutions in the country.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the public eye.

It could bolster the VPA’s image and standing. They’ve been nothing but professional so far.  Their distribution of food, especially to the neediest communities, has been well documented in state media; reinforcing the connection between the Army and the people.

But this is not preordained and entails a degree of risk to the VPA’s standing.  

First, the VPA has had constabulary functions in the past. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Communist Party passed an emergency decree (CP-89) authorizing the VPA to put down peasant uprisings in the Red River Delta and in the Central Highlands. It was a role and function that the VPA was clearly uncomfortable with and has eschewed since, leaving most domestic security matters to the Ministry of Public Security.

Images of the VPA deploying armored personnel carriers and armed soldiers at checkpoints quickly made the rounds on social media, provoking public response. So it will be very important to see how the VPA handles its constabulary functions.

Second, while the VPA enjoys broad popular support, it is legally bound to defend the Communist Party first and foremost. The VPA tries to cultivate an independent image of itself, but it is a party army. Indeed, this has sparked fierce public debates, especially ahead of the 12th Party Congress in 2016, after the VCP appeared to bow to Chinese pressure in the South China Sea.

If public anger towards the government grows as the lockdowns are extended, will the VPA be blamed for their association regardless of their provision of aid? If nothing else, the VPA’s deployment serves as a reminder of the government’s failings.

The national leadership is clearly feeling insecure. Hanoi’s constant interference in the political leadership of HCMC over the past few years, in a bid to wrest control over the independent-minded megacity that subsidizes the rest of the country, rankles many. The government has concurrently primed the propaganda machine with clearly fictitious stories of model workers and stepped up the persecution of critics of the government’s response. State media made very clear the VPA would be used to help put down any threat that emerges to take advantage of the current situation, fears heightened by the arrival this week of US Vice President Kamala Harris.

But if one wants really to see the regime’s fear, look only to the VPA’s receipt of 200,000 vaccines from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The first military-to-military transfer from an age-old foe, toward whom there is substantial public mistrust, says a lot about the regime’s expectation that more troops will be deployed as more of the country goes into extended lockdown.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.


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John Martin
Aug 25, 2021 11:04 AM

Excellent article.

Tony Nguyen
Sep 01, 2021 07:39 PM

Last year's success in fighting Covid has now become this year's colossal failure due mostly to the incompetence of the utterly corrupt Vietnamese Communist Party officials. Believe it or not, the current death toll as of 01 Aug 2021 is 11868, which is even higher than Thailand's.