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Hanoi’s tiny balconies overlooking deserted streets are havens for the city’s imprisoned residents. Photo: Nhac Nguyen / AFP via Getty

Red – the color usually associated with happiness in Vietnam – is now wrapping doors instead of gifts. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Southeast Asia, homes in Ho Chi Minh are being taped up with an isolated coronavirus positive person to keep their distance. The city is currently under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world as Vietnam battles an unprecedented Covid-19 outbreak.

When I returned to Ho Chi Minh in January after almost a year of absence, I went from 15 days of mandatory hotel quarantine to a “normal” life with rooftop bars and crowded streets. Thanks to a strict entry and quarantine procedure, Vietnam had largely kept the coronavirus in check. As of April this year, Vietnam recorded a total of only 5,400 Covid-19 cases and 35 deaths. As of September there are 551,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 13,701 deaths.

How have things changed so drastically in just a few months? Mostly a combination of the highly transmissible Delta variant and an unvaccinated population of 98 million people. Vietnam is struggling with the introduction of vaccines and is reliant on the Covax program and donations from other countries. Even after a tightened vaccination schedule, only 3.5 percent of the population are fully vaccinated and 16.5 percent have a vaccination.

Most vaccines went to the Ho Chi Minh hotspot, which accounts for 80 percent of deaths and half of infections responsible for. The city started a somewhat chaotic vaccine rollout this summer and has now vaccinated more than 80 percent of its nine million residents with at least one vaccination. I’m one of them, but my digital information has not been updated with my vaccination record and I have no idea when to get my second vaccination.

Vaccine supplies arrive in droplets and droplets, and the city has been open since August 23rd completely blocked. While certain restrictions have been in place since late May, the latest directive is extreme. Residents are not even allowed to leave their homes to eat – instead the military is working with local community associations to deliver groceries weekly.

I received my last week and was impressed with the amount of vegetables, although I was surprised how many kinds of random greens and pumpkins were in the pack. If you’ve never Googled “Pumpkin Dessert Recipe”, I’ll envy you. The food supply is affecting the whole city, and while new rules this week allow shippers to deliver orders for fresh food, stores are overwhelmed and deliveries take days (if they do at all).

Over One night, restaurants were suddenly told that they could deliver take-out after closing for two months, but many lack the fresh produce and delivery drivers required for such short-term operations.

While most lockdown restrictions are understandable – and necessary – , others are difficult to understand. Only “essential” goods can be delivered (which for me does not mean impulsive online shopping), but many actually essential products such as hygiene articles and pet food are considered “non-essential”. This causes a lot of stress in the whole city.

The residents are not even allowed to walk and there is a city-wide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Luckily for my two foster dogs Milk and Lord, the rules don’t apply to non-humans, so I was able to let them walk a little in the alley in front of my house and call them back in. It is a privilege that those who live in apartments with pets do not have.

Breaking rules is a no-go, punishable by fines and even imprisonment. The government even released an app that allows people to anonymously report sightings of rule breakers, often their neighbors.

While I find the restrictions harsh, my worries are nothing compared to many of the city’s residents who have been mostly for two up to three months with no income are insufficient government support. Messaging apps like Zalo and SOSmap.net provide a map platform where people can request help from other residents.

Despite the establishment of field hospitals across the city, the health system is with 500 taxis turned into “ambulances” to transport critical patients to the hospital, overloaded. The government has even offered to pay recovered Covid-19 patients in Ho Chi Minh to stay in the hospital to help staff with basic tasks.

The number of deaths in Ho Chi Minh is average 200 a day, and at least 250 children have been orphaned by the city’s Covid-19 outbreak. What were once distant tragedies are now part of everyday life here. It turned out that a rush of medical personnel to a house three doors down from my house was destined for an elderly neighbor who we later learned had passed away.

A team of five in blue hazmat suits came back to our alley to be door-to-door spraying disinfectant chemicals. They left a mess of discarded masks, gloves, and other PPE that were strewn on the floor outside of our group of houses. My landlady told me the neighbors were too scared to clean up, so my roommate and I cleaned the street. A neighbor gave us a valuable bag of farm mushrooms as a thank you.

In addition to the direct effects on daily life, the current restrictions also mean that many authorities are closed and documents cannot be sent across the city. Processes that normally only take days or weeks are now severely delayed, so that business and visa applications cannot be approved.

I am waiting in a kind of pending condition for my temporary residence card (which is valid for two years) and a new bank account for my company registered in Vietnam has also been put on hold. I can only hope that both will be done soon so that I can return to Ireland for Christmas and see my family and friends again, many of whom I haven’t seen in almost two years.

The government has recently gone from zero Covid-19 strategy moved to a new life plan with the virus, so there is hope that restrictions will be eased on September 15th. What this will entail is unclear as clear communication is not the strength of the government.

Ho Chi Minh is divided into zones, which are colored red, orange and green depending on the number of cases and their number an interactive online map can be checked. But there is confusion around every corner.

My zone is orange, which means I can now leave the house to pick up a grocery delivery instead of waiting for the military to drop it off. Even so, I was stopped by the police and had to politely argue that I can pick up my food at the barrier that currently separates my neighborhood from the main road.

I lived in Southeast Asia (Thailand and Vietnam) during the entire pandemic, so I was protected from the effects of Covid-19 until recently. It is worrying to see the situation here deteriorate so quickly, and many foreigners have long since left the country since the outbreak worsened. I’m not blaming them, but this is my home now, so I stay here.

Little things like seeing my neighbors smuggle treats through the gate for my dogs or share fruit with us are my love stepped up to this country and I learned Vietnamese during the lockdown.

One sentence I learned to say is “Viet Nam Co Lên”, which translates to “Vietnam! Keep fighting! “

Sarah Clayton-Lea has lived in Southeast Asia for three years and is co-founder of bigseventravel.com

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