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Vietnam vows to curb COVID in Ho Chi Minh City as deaths spike

Prime minister sets mid-Sept. deadline to keep foreign investment rolling in

HANOI -- Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has signed a resolution calling for urgent measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Ho Chi Minh City.

The government is now vowing to bring the situation in the southern commercial hub under control before Sept. 15 as the pandemic weighs on foreign investment over fears about the economy.

Chinh's signing of the resolution on Aug. 6 came as Ho Chi Minh City saw deaths spike since July. The fatality rate -- the ratio between confirmed deaths and confirmed cases -- topped 4.5% on Aug. 9, surpassing Indonesia, another Southeast Asian country ravaged by the pandemic, whose rate stood at 3.8%. Meanwhile, Thailand recorded 1% while Japan marked 0.1% on the same day.

"The COVID-19 mortality rate in the city is indeed a concern. I expect to see a higher rate in the coming weeks," said Dr. Tuan V. Nguyen, a fellow at Australia's National Health and Medical Research, in an interview with Nikkei Asia. 

According to the resolution, the "delta variant is developing complicatedly, with strong outbreaks, rapid spread and high mortality."

The World Health Organization also weighed in, saying in its COVID19 Situation Report issued on Aug. 1 that "Ho Chi Minh City continued to be the epic with [the] number of new cases reported this week [accounting] for 60.7% of the [nation's] tally."

The resolution allows the prime minister and the government to skip existing legal frameworks and impose strict measures to fight COVID, according to state media.

With the prime minister's signing, authorities are now able to restrict the number of vehicles in affected areas, lock down specific districts, and impose other curbs. The prime minister can also exert more control over communications should a state of emergency be declared. The resolution went into effect on July 28 and will remain in force through the end of 2022.

The resolution focused on bringing the pandemic in Ho Chi Minh City -- the country's economic engine -- under control, reading in part to "maintain production activities and avoid disrupting supply chains."

The rising death rate is also affecting foreign companies operating in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding provinces as Vietnam's vaccination drive makes slow progress.

"If Japanese nationals living in Vietnam return to Japan temporarily for vaccination, please help them to return to work as soon as possible after returning to Vietnam," Tetsu Funayama, Co-Chairman of Vietnam Business Forum JCCI Representative, asked Chinh during a Sunday online conference with the business community.

"Foreign investors are concerned about the transparency and the speed of data collection on COVID-19 updates," said Ha Hoang Hop, a senior fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. "If the issues are left unaddressed, Japanese businesses in Ho Chi Minh City, for example, would want to exit the city due to the lack of transparent data."

Hanoi expressed its willingness to address the concerns of foreign businesses over the transparency of COVID information. According to the resolution: "The government assigned the Ministry of Health, the Department of Health, the standing agency of the Steering Committee for COVID-19 disease prevention and control at all levels to be the focal point to provide timely information as well as official information on the epidemic."

Vietnam's economy grew in the first half of the year, achieving a 5.64% rise in gross domestic product. Realized foreign direct investment capital during the period exceeded $10.5 billion, up 3.8%.

However, the prospect for the second half is clouded, despite Hanoi's pledge to curb the pandemic in Ho Chi Minh City by mid-September.

"I think it is fair to say that the health system in Ho Chi Minh City is in a very challenging time," said Nguyen of Australia's National Health and Medical Research. But Nguyen is optimistic about the vaccine rollout. "With limited data, I have done a simple epidemiologic modeling and found that the [Ho Chi Minh City] health care system has the capacity to handle approximately 40,000 cases on a given day," he said. On Aug. 10, Vietnam reported 8,385 new quality cases.

"With the growth driver mainly based on foreign trade, the ability to recover economic growth of Vietnam in general and Ho Chi Minh City in particular is quite promising," said Anh Pham, an independent business growth and strategy adviser, echoing Nguyen's outlook.

But Hanoi remains cautious. "It must be frankly admitted that the [current] fourth outbreak of COVID-19 with the delta variant -- especially starting from July 2021 -- has caused gray patches to spread very quickly in the business sector," said Minister of Planning and Investment Nguyen Chi Dung during Sunday's online meeting. "The market has not shown any signs of recovery, or the recovery is very slow."

Additional reporting by Kim Dung Tong in Ho Chi Minh City.

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