A robust, organized and effective response to COVID-19 saved lives in Viet Nam
Viet Nam, with a population of nearly 100 million, is an emerging success story at managing the COVID-19 pandemic. While the international media has focused on its outstanding ability to manage the logistics of screening, testing, and quarantine, nutrition is another aspect of achieving good health outcomes.
Viet Nam was the first country recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be SARS-free in 2003. The Law on Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases was promulgated in 2007 as a basis for preparedness, rapid coordination and quarantine policies. Only five days after the first two COVID-19 cases were detected in Viet Nam, the government formed the National Steering Committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who is also the Government’s representative to the Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, to coordinate the “whole of government” strategy.
In late February, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health released “Ghen Co Vy,” meaning “The Jealous Coronavirus,” a well-known pop song given new lyrics and turned into a handwashing public service announcement. The institute asked dancer Quang Dang to choreograph dance moves, which ultimately spearheaded a dance challenge on Tik Tok. In March, the Ministry of Health sent ten SMS message boosters to all cell phone users in the country, constantly using the motto: “Fighting the epidemic is like fighting against the enemy.”
The message also resonated well with the nutrition community in Viet Nam since the founding father of the National Institute of Nutrition after the war time was a doctor and general. The messaging engendered a community spirit in which every citizen felt inspired to do their part, whether that was wearing a mask in public, enduring weeks of quarantine, or boosting their immune system with adequate nutrition.
On March 27, when there was a peak of community transmission, the Prime Minister ordered all restaurants to close. On March 29, government released a Resolution 37/NQ-CP to ensure nutritious meal support for people in quarantine aimed at ensuring their health to defeat the coronavirus.
On April 5, the Ministry of Health’s Department of General Preventive Medicine and National Institute of Nutrition issued the nutrition guideline for different vulnerable groups –elderly, pregnant women, and children. Dr Le Danh Tuyen, Director of the National Institute of Nutrition said, “The guideline highlights home-based food, recommends avoiding fast food, and supplement with micronutrients in addition to practicing proper hygiene.”
Regarding food supply, the Ministry of Industry and Trade closely monitored the supply and demand situation and distribution of essential foods and other commodities while the whole country was put under strict social distancing measures. Supplies of food and essential goods were ensured with little panic buying, and volatile food prices were seen in only a few places. Many companies and individuals organized and maintained “Rice ATM”, “0 VND-ATM” to provide rice and essential foods to vulnerable citizens.
Maternal, infant, young child nutrition was also paid special attention. On Feb 11, 2020, a 3-month-old girl acquired SARS-CoV-2 infection from her grandmother. The infant isolated with her mother and continued to breastfeed with the mother wearing surgical face mask. She received only azithromycin at a dose of 10 mg/kg per day orally for five days and was discharged after nine days. It reinforced the importance of breastfeeding and was therefore emphasized in the nutrition advice for babies under two years old massively promoted in the format of leaflets, video and radio.
In March 2020, Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Alliance (SUN CSA) Viet Nam and the Nutrition Working Group sent letters to relevant ministries and government entities reporting marketing violations by three companies producing and distributing breastmilk substititues, NutriCare, Nutifood, and VitaDairy. These companies were providing free samples of breastmilk substitutes to COVID-19 treatment hospitals and advertised that their products helped to enhance children’s immune systems to fight COVID-19.
In April 2020, the National Institute of Nutrition conducted a rapid assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on household food security, household diet patterns and the impact on infant and young child nutrition. To our knowledge, it is the first assessment in Southeast Asia examining the impact of COVID-19 on nutrition. The report showed that no negative impact was detected for recommended infant and young child feeding practice and the nutrition status.
The pandemic is not yet over, but it gives us a lesson that building resilient systems and communities needs to be a key component of the new nutrition strategy, including vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities. With the advocacy of the SUN CSA Viet Nam, WHO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, in June 2020, Viet Nam’s National Assembly voted unanimously to approve an allocation equal in value to at least USD 6 billion to a new National Targeted Program for Ethnic Minority Development (2021-2025), which includes a substantial nutrition component.