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Vietnam’s efforts against COVID-19: An Assessment

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Vietnam’s response with regard to the COVID-19, both within the country also at regional level, has been much appreciated by the global media. During the year 2020, Vietnam has reported more than 1465 cases of COVID-19, out of which there were 35 deaths. In comparison to global average this was minuscule percentage of infections and fatalities.  Vietnam has been extra cautious with regard to addressing this pandemic, and has lubricated its public health system, and took herculean measures including imprisonment for irresponsible citizens, and compulsory quarantine measures. In fact, whenever there has been a detection of cases, Vietnam has taken extra precautions with regard to quarantining that particular area, and complete lockdown so that social interactions do not happen within a particular province or any city as such. One of the most appreciated facts with regard to Vietnam’s countermeasures against the COVID-19 pandemic has been with regard to contact tracing which has gone up to three levels of contact tracing for any positive case which have been detected within the country. The quarantine centres run by the government has been extra effective because it has helped in containing any large scale community transmission.

If one evaluates the phases of COVID-19 impact on Vietnam socio-economic life one can very well discern the three phases as the early phase(January -February 2020), the middle phase starting from March till December 2020, and thereafter from January 2021 up till date. While in the earlier phases it has been very successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and it has successfully traced the three levels of contacts in case of any COVID-19 infection which have been detected. Due to these herculean measures and an active role by the political leadership which has taken stern measures within days so as to isolate an infected person as well as undertake stringent measures to protect the community from further transmissions.

Given the fact that Vietnam was prepared for the SARS epidemic in 2003 and in subsequent years witnessed multiple cases of avian influenza between 2004 to 2010, it was much prepared for any kind pandemic. As a necessary measure it was made mandatory for all the hospitals to inform any cases of pandemics at the central coordination centre and these coordination centres worked overtime to highlight the areas where the infection could have spread knowing the new cases which have emerged over a period of time. While by May 2020, Vietnam has been successful in opening many of its businesses, and the economy was gradually opened but the influx of illegal tourists from neighbouring countries to Danang has led to community transmission between July to August 2020. As a result of which Danang and the central provinces were locked down, and the citizens also acted responsibly so as to contribute to the public health emergency response mechanisms of the government.

As a result of the pandemic surge in January-February 2020, Vietnam has immediately suspended all international flights and have trailed all those people would had a history of international travel. Interestingly, the larger number of people which were infected in Vietnam were relatively young (with a mean age of 36 years) and have a relatively higher immunity systems because of which the recovery rate was usually high. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Health which had tabulated the number of confirmed cases as well as casualties which arise because of the COVID-19 fatalities, it has collected extensive data with regard to a gender as well as the living location of the infected and deceased persons. Additionally, the Ministry of Internal Security along with Ministry of Health have taken additional measures so as to trail those people who have recovered and also look into any further transmission which might have spread across 29 provinces and cities.

The major cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh accounted for largest number of case but none of them crossed2000 cases as such. In one data analysis it has been stated that out of the confirmed cases more than 60% were those people who have travelled to Vietnam or Vietnamese citizens who have come from abroad.

The measures which have been undertaken by the central government included restrictions on international flights, tracing of susceptible cases, quarantine measures and strict enforcement of social distancing and increasing public response through advertisement and awareness mechanisms. The earliest cases that were detected in Vietnam where primarily those flights which have germinated from Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic. As a result of which most of the flights from China were cancelled. It was also made mandatory that all visitors which were visiting China or returning from China had to declare their medical status on their entry to Vietnam.

Even till date Vietnam has made it mandatory that all of those people who are travelling to Vietnam will have to undergo 14 days of quarantine in a military centre, and subsequently 14 more days in their homes or hotels wherever they are residing in. Even during the quarantine period, a person undertakes at his/her home, he/she is strictly warned not to arrange parties for their close ones. Remarkably, all expenses related to the testing of the COVID-19 as well as treatment costs for the Vietnamese citizens were provided by the government. During staggered lock down periods people were asked to stay inside, with the exception of venturing out only for buying food, procuring essential medicines and addressing any emergencies because of health reasons.

Even in the ASEAN meetings in 2020, Vietnam has undertaken measures so as to integrate public health emergencies institutions across Southeast Asia, and also commenced major measures so as to provide medical equipment, test kits and face masks to the countries in the region on a mutual basis. A massive public health education was carried out to sensitise people with regard to hand washing, mandatory use of face masks, and undertaking diet and exercises so as to build immunity among cross section of people. Extensive media campaign was taken so as to sensitise people specially children with regard to hygiene and self-quarantine. Given the successful use of public health system and also undertaking various measures to protect the citizens many countries across the word were impressed by Vietnam’s response mechanisms. On the one hand while COVID-19 infections have reached more than 43.5 million people across the world and have caused more than 1.2 million deaths, the number of deaths in Vietnam shows the response mechanisms of the government. One of the mottos and the slogan which was popularised by the central government that ‘one must fight the COVID-19 pandemic like fighting the enemy’. This urge for public participation despite having limited resources has been successful because it also provided a comprehensive plan of action with regard to restrictions on immigration, limited movement and meticulous quarantine measures.

As a result of these measures which have successfully contained COVID-19,Vietnam economy is surging ahead. It is expected that the Vietnam economy will attain more than 7 per cent of annual growth in the year. Also, during the last year, the Vietnam economy has touched near about 3 per cent of growth despite having regressive economic downturn because of the pandemic. As per the one estimate, the effective measures which have been taken by the government had protected more than 35,000 people from getting infected and the possible death of 300 people because which might have occurred because of COVID-19 infections.

While much of the infections related to the pandemic has been contained in Vietnam but the country is not letting the guard down from containing the spread of the pandemic. Vietnam government has making additional precautionary measures so as to procure vaccinations from a number of sources such as China, Russia and India, and is likely to take extensive vaccination programme so as to vaccinate a large number of populations so that the economy can be back on track and the socio-political life could go on hindered in future.

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Southeast Asia

Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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