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Vietnam rushes to repatriate COVID-infected workers

First plane carrying over 200 from African dam project arrives in Hanoi on Wednesday

Hanoi’s move to repatriate COVID-infected workers comes as the country tries to contain its first locally transmitted infections in three months in central Vietnam.     © Reuters

HANOI -- Vietnam's government has made plans for multiple flights to bring back about 500 nationals stranded overseas, more than half of whom have contracted COVID-19.

The first flight is set to land at Noi Bai International Airport, the capital's air hub, at about noon local time Wednesday, carrying 219 Vietnamese from Equatorial Guinea, where they have been building a hydropower project. Of this group, 120 have tested positive for COVID-19.

The repatriation comes as the communist-led country tries to contain its first locally transmitted coronavirus infections in three months while dealing with requests from overseas workers' families.

Hanoi plans another operation to bring 226 people in Uzbekistan back home next month. Half of these people, who work for China Petroleum Jilin Chemical Engineering & Construction, are infected with the coronavirus.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on July 10 ordered authorities to arrange the repatriation flights to Equatorial Guinea "as soon as possible, with the best effort to protect our citizens."

Hanoi's response came after a video was posted on Facebook showing a Vietnamese worker who said he was infected with the virus, but was still forced to work. In the video, which was reported widely in Vietnamese media, the worker said he was subjected to maltreatment and a poor diet, and a language barrier was making his situation worse. Social media postings urged Hanoi to take action.

"The COVID epidemic presents a good opportunity for the Vietnamese Communist Party and the government to win the hearts of the people, to gain a reputation for being 'chosen by the people' and 'serving the people,'" said Duong Quoc Chinh, a Hanoi-based political analyst. "The party and the government could be criticized if they ignore the call of Vietnamese overseas."

Vietnam is a major source of international workers, with about 560,000 people employed overseas mostly at construction sites, factories and farms. Most of them work in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, with a fraction of them in countries with relatively weak health care systems. Vietnam's migrants send home between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in remittances every year.

The workers in Equatorial Guinea are building the Sendje Hydropower Plant in Litoral Province.

Vietnam was an early success story for its containment of the coronavirus. The country is smaller than California but has more than twice the population. Yet Vietnam has logged just over 430 COVID-19 cases and no deaths, compared with more than 463,000 cases and more than 8,500 deaths in California, said Ngo Vinh Long, a professor at the University of Maine in the U.S.

But now, Vietnam faces a COVID-19 resurgence risk at home. On Friday, the government detected an instance of local transmission in Danang, ending a national streak of 99 straight days without a new case. Danang imposed restrictions on part of the city on Sunday, then increased its response Monday to a call for social distancing after health authorities confirmed 11 more new cases in the community.

Vietnam on Wednesday confirmed eight new cases locally, bring total number of infected people to 446. Quang Nam Province will impose social restrictions for 15 days starting from Wednesday after it announced three new cases who recently traveled from nearby Danang.

"Vietnam's leaders and people are doing our best to control the pandemic," said Nguyen Thanh Phong, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, reassuring foreign investors about new outbreak in Danang.

Professor Long said: "The Communist Party convention is still six months away and anything can happen between now and then. But the government of Vietnam certainly does not want COVID-19 to create social and economic problems and could spill over to the political arena."

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