HCMC – After going 99 days without a fresh case, Vietnam is back in Covid-19 panic mode. For months, the country had basked in the glow of the being the only nation, aside from New Zealand, to conquer the disease. The tourists were coming back. But over the past ten days, nearly 100 cases have been reported in Danang and the surrounding area. In addition, 140 infected Vietnamese construction workers have just returned from Equatorial Guinea.
Danang is renowned for its magnificent Hawaii-like beaches. Nearby Hoi An is a historic trading post. In the days of sail, Hoi An, or Faifo as it was then called, was as far south as a merchant ship from China could go before the monsoon set in. The harbor silted up long ago. Nowadays, tourists take a side trip from Danang to check out Hoi An’s lanterns and historic architecture. The Covid scare triggered the evacuation of tens of thousands of tourists from both cities.
Masks are a key factor in Vietnam’s success in dealing with the virus. Asians in general are anxious to avoid tanning and thus more willing to wear masks. In Vietnam, the motorbike is king of transportation. Many drivers have long worn masks to keep the dust out. So locals were familiar to their usage and willing to extend it to other areas of life. The country imposed fines for failure to wear a mask in public starting on March 16.
I went shopping in HCMC without a mask early in the pandemic. At this time, the authorities in the United States were still recommending that Americans not wear masks. An older woman set me straight: “You need to wear a mask. You are endangering everyone else.”
In an astonishing turnabout, Dr. Anthony Fauci later admitted that he had lied about the effectiveness of masks, supposedly to prevent panic buying. This strikes me as an implausible explanation since there was never a mask shortage in Vietnam.
The science of masks remains controversial. Viruses are small enough to slip through the holes in the commonly used models. Besides a few exceptions (N95, Mr. Druk’s AQ Blue, and M3), a mask doesn’t actually protect the wearer. Masks that do filter out viruses are uncomfortable and no one wears one for an extended period.
What masks do is protect other people that the wearer might cough or sneeze on. Is this enough? Despite Japan’s large elderly population and crowded conditions, it has a remarkably low infection rate. This is often attributed to the country’s enthusiasm for mask wearing.
Other factors that may have lowered Vietnam’s rate of infection include the relative youth of its population and the high level solar radiation that it receives.
There is another form of protection against Covid that residents of Vietnam can try for themselves. Hydrochloroquine is sold over the counter. It was the object of a great deal of attention when it was used briefly by U.S. President Donald Trump. This drug has been widely used to treat malaria since 1955. So there is no question that is safe, despite scare talk in the media.
I brought a bottle at a local pharmacy and tried it for a few days. I can’t say what effect it has on viruses, but it certainly reduced my energy level. If I walked around in the morning, my day over was by early afternoon.
I don’t recommend that anyone else self-medicate. Studies of hydrochloroquine are coming out fast and furious these days. Several large randomized studies of hospitalized patients suggest the drug’s effectiveness is limited. Advocates reply that usage needs to start early on, before hospitalization, or in conjunction with zinc. In other words, it’s all a lot more complicated than just popping in a pill, the way I was doing it.
Vietnam has its own ongoing study of chloroquine. It is being supervised by Oxford University Clinical Research and conducted at various hospitals in HCMC and Hanoi. Rather than duplicating the work of international studies that focus on death and recovery rates, this one tracks the virus count in the patient’s nose and throat.
By Peter Kauffner