Vietnam should not be too concerned about the risk of another COVID-19 outbreak as Chinese tourists start to return to the country, medical experts told RFA.
The doctors said Vietnam’s high vaccination rate and herd immunity from previous outbreaks should mean new cases are relatively mild.
The Prime Minister has also ordered strict health monitoring at border points and an early-warning system to alert the government to any fresh Coronavirus outbreaks.
Vietnam and China officially reopened the Mong Cai international border gate, connecting the city in Quang Ninh province with Dongxing city in China’s southwestern Guangxi region on Sunday.
Chinese visitors have been absent from Vietnam for nearly three years due to Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, abandoned last month.
Some Vietnam residents are concerned about a resurgence in COVID, particularly after the World Health Organization announced that BA5.2 — and a highly infectious new Omicron subvariant, BF.7 — accounted for 97.5% of all local infections in China.
Although Beijing has reported very few deaths since the authorities abandoned lockdowns, mass testing and tracking, RFA’s Asia Fact Check Lab found that China uses a very narrow definition for COVID fatalities.
More than 10 countries, including the United States, Japan and some E.U. nations, have introduced requirements for travelers from China to submit the results of a negative PCR test on arrival. Vietnam, along with many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, has not toughened entry rules.
Ho Chi Minh City-based doctor Dinh Duc Long, who has many years of experience working in military hospitals, told Radio Free Asia the majority of Vietnamese people had already received three-to-four injections of Western vaccines such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.
“Therefore, Vietnam’s immunity is better than China’s because China does not have as many good vaccines as Vietnam,” he said.
A doctor who used to work for the “Companion Physicians” network of medical experts who advise patients with serious COVID cases told RFA that Vietnam has achieved herd immunity through its vaccination program so people should not be concerned about the return of Chinese tourists.
“Opening the door will increase the rate of re-infection with COVID or we will get a new strain due to mutation. However, in my opinion, Vietnamese people have all been vaccinated so if they get infected, it will be mild,” said the doctor, who used the pseudonym Pham Thi Hoa for security reasons.
Vietnam administered more than 265 million COVID injections as of Jan. 9, and its vaccination program is continuing, according to the Ministry of Health.
There have been more than 11.5 million Coronavirus cases across the country, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard.
Don’t close the door to China
Unlike Morocco – the only country to ban arrivals from China – Vietnam should not close its doors, according to Dr. Long.
“Vietnam is open to all countries, so there is no reason not to open to China. If we don’t reopen it’s discriminatory,” she said.
There is also a strong economic argument for allowing Chinese tourists back into Vietnam. In 2019, before the start of the COVID pandemic, the country welcomed 5.8 million Chinese tourists, nearly one-third of international visitors. About 4.5 million Vietnamese traveled to China, making it the biggest tourist destination for Vietnamese people, the chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, Vu The Binh, told the State-controlled Hanoimoi news site.
One day after China announced the full reopening of its border with Vietnam, the Vietnam Tourism Association in collaboration with the Tourism Department of Quang Ninh province held a conference titled “Solutions to attract Chinese tourists to Vietnam.”
Officials from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism attended the conference in Mong Cai city, along with representatives from 200 travel and tourism firms across the country. Delegates agreed that Vietnam should prepare to welcome back Chinese tourists and reap the benefits of their spending power.
The government is still taking precautions to prevent another major COVID outbreak. On Sunday, the Prime Minister issued an urgent dispatch on strengthening the prevention and control of epidemics during the Lunar New Year and the 2023 festival season.
Pham Minh Chinh asked the Ministry of Health to “regularly and closely monitor the epidemic situation in the country and internationally; promptly provide guidance if necessary; and closely coordinate with ministries, branches and localities in directing, inspecting and supervising the organization and implementation of epidemic prevention and control.”
He ordered local authorities to strengthen health inspection procedures at border gates “especially with cases of entry from epidemic outbreak areas and from places where new and dangerous variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appear.”
Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.