The other day I was jogging laps around a Vietnamese park track dotted with men and women out walking together, chatting about life as they strode shoulder to shoulder.
Nearby, a group of teenagers was playing soccer on a makeshift field, small children raced around the playground on scooters, and couples sat at tables, enjoying drinks and an afternoon snack.
The park was alive with people, very few of whom seemed remotely concerned about the killer pandemic known as COVID-19.
After a brisk five laps around the track, I sat down on a bench to catch my breath. Surveying the park, I was struck by how oddly normal life seemed these days.
I was surprised to see an older man heading in my direction. In previous weeks, locals had made sure to give me a wide berth. If they didn’t have their mask up, they’d make sure to raise it as I passed. Once or twice, rowdy teenagers had even called out “Hello Corona!” as they sped by on their scooters.
But the old man stopped in front of me, smiling.
“Hello! Where are you from?” he asked, his expression warm.
Over the past two months, “Where are you from?” had become the standard opener for any conversation with a local. People needed to know upfront whether it was safe to talk with you.
I politely gave the old man my standard response, now honed after weeks of practice. “I’m from America originally but it’s been years since I lived there.”
“America!” he said, his widening smile flattening the curve of his short grey mustache. “America is very nice. I used to teach English at a school in a nearby village.”
“Ah, an English teacher,” I thought. That explains it. Of all people in the world, foreign English teachers are always excited to chat with a native Anglophone, even in the wake of a pandemic.
“My wife and I are both retired,” he went on to explain. They had lived for years in a nearby village, about 30 kilometers away from here. Recently they had moved to the city to help support his son and stepdaughter by watching his two granddaughters.
“How are things in your country?” my new friend asked, looking genuinely concerned.
“Not good,” I confessed. With thousands of people still dying every day, it was impossible to paint a rosy picture, especially when compared to Vietnam.
Four months ago you couldn’t have made this stuff up. Here I was, essentially an American refugee, seeking safety in Vietnam — a country generally considered “less developed.” And yet it has outperformed the superpower America in every aspect of the pandemic.
“It’s funny,” I mused aloud. “Many people have thought that America could defeat any problem. COVID is proving us all wrong.”
My friend nodded his head thoughtfully, as only a retired teacher can.
“Capitalism and communism are very different,” he commented. “They both have positives and negatives. Capitalism is good for many things but not for war.”
Ironically, many of the same problems that plagued America during the Vietnam War are resurfacing today in the fight against COVID.
While the moral context of America’s war with Vietnam and its war with COVID-19 are very different, there are three similar failings from both conflicts that are telling:
1. America’s lack of leadership:
Up until the Vietnam war, most Americans held a high degree of respect, even reverence for the office of President.
With the Vietnam war came the emergence of a “credibility gap,” an acknowledgement that what a President says and does are not the same.
“As American casualties mounted and news filtered back home that the war was not going nearly as well as the White House had been claiming, the public’s faith in [the president] began to wane. Politicians and journalists described a “credibility gap” — the space between the president’s assertions and the facts on the ground. Skepticism eventually gave way to disillusionment with the presidency itself.” — Ken Burns & Lynn Novick
The skepticism and disillusionment that came with Vietnam led people to lose faith in the presidency. What we see happening with President Trump and COVID-19 is merely a grossly exacerbated version of what started with Vietnam.
Well before America was considering COVID a threat, Vietnam’s single-party system was enacting aggressive, wide-sweeping measures. It shut down borders, closed schools, and quarantined entire neighborhoods. It made face masks in public mandatory and threatened severe fines or even imprisonment for anyone caught disobeying.
While such measures seem harsh, especially to an American born and raised in the comfort of capitalism and democracy, Vietnam’s leadership was declaring open war on the virus.
By contrast, America’s leadership, especially its president, was treating it as little more than a nuisance.
Case in point, here are two quotes from the countries’ top leadership in early March:
“If fighting COVID-19 has been a war, then we have won the first round but not the entire war because the situation can be very unpredictable,” — Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam
“We have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work… but they get better” — President Donald Trump
Two months later, Vietnam has still had no deaths, under 300 total confirmed cases countrywide, and has enjoyed multiple-week stretches with no new cases.
In America, there’s unfortunately not a single state that can say the same.
Instead of a concentrated offensive, the biggest headlines in America have focused on internal fighting between the President and state governors, the President and medical authorities, the President and the press.
Often, it seems as though the President is fighting everyone but the actual enemy.
In the meantime, America continues to lose thousands of lives every day while the world watches, dumbfounded by the actions of its president.
2. America’s lack of understanding:
One of the advantages that Vietnam held over the Americans during the Vietnam War was their expert knowledge of the terrain.
This same advantage exists in the war against COVID.
America has never had to actively fight against a biological enemy as fierce as COVID. Vietnam, on the other hand, was prepared from previous battles during this century.
“With experience gained from dealing with the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 pandemics, Vietnam’s government started organizing its response in January — as soon as reports began trickling in from Wuhan, China… The country quickly came up with a variety of tactics, including widespread quarantining and aggressive contact tracing.” — NPR
Instead of wasting precious time speculating and debating over which tactics might be effective, Vietnam benefitted from their first-hand knowledge. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc even used the “spring general offensive of 2020,” a reference to the 1968 Tet Offensive, as a metaphor for their fight against COVID.
America, on the other hand, pushes forward assuming they can manage the fight on their terms. Instead, leadership and citizens find themselves caught up in a confusing, wish-wash approach. This, even as it’s own leading medical experts sound the alarms:
“If phased reductions of social distancing measures are not carried out, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak you may not be able to control… It would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward.” — Anthony Fauci, MD
3. America’s lack of unity:
The Vietnam War was, undisputedly, the most controversial war ever fought by America (and rightfully so).
The anti-war movement began small, mostly on college campuses but eventually spread throughout the entire country as more and more Americans became disillusioned with America’s actions.
COVID has also splintered the United States into factions, with mass protests being organized around the country.
Handmade signs screaming “Make love not war” and “Get out of Vietnam,” have been replaced by “Stop the fear,” and “Reopen America.”
A week ago, Vietnam celebrated its 45th anniversary of Reunification Day, a day commemorating communism’s victory over capitalism. It was on April 30th, 1975, that the North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng captured Saigon and ended the Vietnam War. It was America’s first true loss.
“In battle, it is good to have one voice, one leader,” my friend explained. “People have to stick together because they have no other choice.”
Unfortunately, freedom of choice and expression, two of America’s greatest assets during the Vietnam War, seem to be doing more harm than good in the fight against COVID.
The biggest difference between the two wars
45 years ago America pulled its troops out of Vietnam, ending a decades-long war in a matter of days.
This time around, the invisible enemy is on American soil.
Pulling out is not an option.
To win today’s war, America needs to learn from an old enemy and a new ally in Vietnam. A country that has now successfully contained the enemy over an extended period.
Winning against COVID-19 will not be simple for anyone, but it also doesn’t have to be as complicated as America is currently making it.
“I hope things get better for your country soon,” my wise friend said before moving onto his next lap around the track.
I hope so too.