50. The Waiting to Be Vaccinated Blues

COVID-19 vaccinations haven’t yet arrived in the Central Highlands in any significant quantity. The author is more than ready.

A COVID-19 test is administered on a street corner in Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

Patience, John. I tell myself every day: Patience.

I’m still waiting to be vaccinated against Covid-19. For the first time.

A year ago — heck, five months ago — we were cruising here in Vietnam. We were aware of the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, but the problem seemed to belong to the rest of the world, not to us. Our numbers were minuscule by comparison.

As of mid-April in this country of 98 million people, we had seen only 2,733 cases and 35 deaths. But the situation changed with the arrival here of the Delta variant in late April/early May.

Statistics now show over 551,000 cases and 13,701 deaths as of September 7. In the last two weeks alone, we have seen 181,700 new cases, almost one-third of the total. According to statistics site WorldOMeters, Vietnam still ranks only 50th internationally in total cases, but this country is 13th in active cases with 225,000. And that number is climbing daily.

A reasonable comparison is our Southeast Asian neighbor, Thailand (population 70 million). That country has seen 1.3 million cases of Covid-19 but only 13,511 deaths, fewer than Vietnam. Its active case load has dropped to 143,000.

Astra Zeneca was among the first vaccines available in Vietnam. (VNExpress phôto)

Why did the first wave largely pass Vietnam by, only to strike heavily with its second coming? I’m going to argue that the country got complacent. In 2020, the authoritarian government mandated that masks be worn in public at all times, and no one blinked an eye. The entire country went into several weeks of self-quarantine. And whenever a corona victim was identified, they were subjected to a hardline regimen of “contact tracing” to determine whom they may have breathed common air.

But vaccines were not yet available. Countries with higher initial rates of infection leapt to the forefront when AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Chinese and Russian vaccines became available for international distribution. Vietnam’s need was, at first, not so great.

The vaccination rate was very low until June. Since then, it has increased, but only slowly. As of yesterday (September 7), only 3.5% of the population had been fully vaccinated (two doses), according to the news site VN Express. Twenty percent have now received one dose. But that distribution is concentrated in the metropolitan area of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where the disease is at its worst, and in greater HaNoi, the national capital. And at a vaccination rate of 300,000 per day, it will take two more months to cover another 10% of the people.

Indeed, half of Vietnam’s cases are in Saigon, my original home when I came to this country nearly two years ago. I moved in February — ahead of the Delta variant — to the provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuot, in DakLak state. Right now, my friends in Saigon are essentially under house arrest, confined to their apartment blocks or residential streets by military barriers. They are tested for Covid weekly and have groceries delivered. But at least they all have at least one vaccination, and many already have two.  

Why anyone would choose to reject a shot, I don’t know.  I don’t care what it is. At this point, I’ll even take the Russian Sputnik or the Chinese Sinovac. I just want to improve my chances of minimizing the effect of the virus if or when I’m exposed.

A do-it-ourselves haircut in the comfort of home. (JGA photo)

My movements are still heavily restricted, even in the Central Highlands. I’ve been teaching English classes online for many months, and I’ve made it clear that I won’t return to the classroom until I am fully vaccinated. But I’m lucky. Really lucky. Here in Buon Ma Thuot, instead of a one-room studio flat in Ho Chi Minh City, I have a three-bedroom house and enough income to afford it.

My house has an exercise studio where my girlfriend and I practice yoga each morning. And Anh is much more than a fitness coach and lockdown companion. She’s a fantastic cook — albeit my diet these days is 100% Vietnamese — and a translator of Covid-related legal documents that I would be unable to decipher without her help.

This story is not very different from those that so many friends and colleagues around the world have experienced. It’s frustrating, of course. I came here as a travel and food writer, anxious to explore and share discoveries in my new domicile. Now I am necessarily a homebody, and that’s not something I’m very good at.

But I will continue to be patient, as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has recently declared the Covid-19 death toll rate in Southeast Asia to be the highest in the world.

 “We fear that as the virus spreads from cities to regional and rural areas that many more lives will be lost among the unvaccinated,” said Alexander Matheou, the IFRC’s Asia Pacific director. He continued:

“In the short-term, we need much greater efforts by richer countries to urgently share their millions of excess vaccine doses with countries in Southeast Asia. We also need vaccine companies and governments to share technology and scale up production. These coming weeks are critical for scaling up treatment, testing and vaccinations, in every corner of all countries in Southeast Asia. We must aim for mass vaccination rates of 70 to 80 per cent if we want to win the race against the variants and overcome this global pandemic.”

As I wrote at the start: Patience, John. Patience. My name is in two and maybe three different registries for the jab(s), which I assure myself will come soon. Meanwhile, I will stay fit and healthy and follow all health-oriented protocols. Now is not a time to take foolish risks.

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccination in Ho Chi Minh City. (PATH.com photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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