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In my Sabbatical year spent here in Vietnam, it would be disingenuous NOT to speak about the Coronavirus. Without being hyperbolic, this is a crisis of every proportion. Here are a few of my observations.
Today it was reported that the Whistle-blower, Dr. Li Wenliang, died of the virus. At the epicentre, Chinese health officials initially claimed the virus would peak and subside within a week’s time. There are claims that those predictions were made due to reticence to pass bad news up the political chain. Undoubtedly, we will celebrate him as a hero, for his efforts to alert the world while Corona was just an epidemic. For context: This same week, one of my state’s senators outed the whistle-blower who originally brought to light the massive corruption of the current White House occupant who was just acquitted. At the same time, in the middle of the (illegal) trade war between these two nations, Chinese health officials reference American health standards to legitimize their efforts to control this pandemic on the international stage – not the W.H.O. If my head weren’t spinning from all this news, then certainly even I am suspicious of my every cough or sneeze to the level of paranoia. Or, perhaps this pseudo-medical mask I am wearing is just rather annoyingly pinching my ears.
Sitting on the ground, people are handling it reasonably well. That is to say, no one is running around screaming or losing their heads. Logistically, the virus could hardly have come at a better time. The city was already emptied out by those who had returned home to celebrate the Lunar New year, known in Vietnam as Tet. The weekend folks were set to return, orders came from on high to close all educational institutions, due to the obvious fact that classrooms huddle groups of people into close, closed quarters – infection heaven. Heck, classrooms are built as fertile grounds! Morally, it’s the exact opposite: What an unsettling ending to the region’s most festive season!
Worse still, there is a travel ban from China, while estimating that “Chinese visitors comprised almost 30 percent of the approximate 15.5 million international travelers who arrived in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City last year and translated into $30 billion from both the domestic and international market.” Who really can imagine the wider economic impact!?!
On my sabbatical, I am working in the language centre of a partner institution of my home university in the UK, which I got to know in my role as Senior Lecturer in International Business. Here, my desk is merely 15 feet away from the customer service desks where students come to register from the language classes, or any one of the ESL tests they must pass to graduate. Basically, at some point, every student at this university must come into this office. Additionally, we are a regional German-language testing centre, garnishing many folks from China (recall that travel ban!). While there are usually 6-7 ladies manning the kiosks, only two to three were called in the first few days to address students’ needs. Now, each day there is only one. Yesterday afternoon, it was announced again that all educational institutions would be closed for yet another week. Since I know that only a few of my colleagues are from Hanoi and are here with their parents, I suppose most of these ladies are home looking after their kids. I cannot imagine how other parents without grandparents nearby are dealing with this crisis.
A colleague told me last week that universities always reserve time within the term for such contingencies, but I imagine two full weeks of cancelled classes is a stretch. Certainly, my concerns have shifted towards the graduating seniors this term. Then, there are also the hourly-paid language teachers our/any centre hires. What about their labour? What’s more, our university is huge and sits next to at least 3 more universities, not to mention the 3 pre-schools I pass on my walk home. Again, all primary, secondary and tertiary schools are all closed for a second week after Tet. There are over 30,000 students, lecturers and staff. My husband has a similar gig down the road which boasts many, many more.
There are entire food and transportation economies woven around all these campuses. Most visibly, there are a host of corporate café chains, as well as typically Hanoian tea-stalls and street-food kiosks selling fast-food ranging from variations of noodle soups, to anything that can be deep-fried, steamed or cooked over a charcoal fire. Naturally, this Kentuckian spends way too much time at the grilled chicken lady. She does feet, as well as drumsticks and wings which she stretches out onto skewers and serves with hot sauce (so there’s no need to carry any in my bag). Most of these food outlets closed for Tet, but many simply have not re-opened since. The few that are open are virtually empty, save for the few pedestrians and commuters passing by, or the motorbike taxis that station themselves around each entrance to the campus alongside the tea-stalls. At least apparently, their persistence offers moral support, though it is possible that economically, there ain’t enough business between them. Enough?
Since the outbreak, I’ve regularly received text messages from the Ministry of Health, as has been widely reported in global media. The messages are in Vietnamese, which Google translates in 1-click just by copying the text. This is all –perhaps strangely- reassuring. No, it is very reassuring. The same messages are also sent straight to my phone via regionally popular chat programs such as Zalo. ‘Google Translate’ is integrated into that programme, too, like a virus. There, MoH’s chat messages include links to extended articles, especially details on how individuals can protect themselves, plus further info such as: “All hospitaliszation costs, medications, and testing costs for nCOV-positive patients are free.” There are layers of ways of spreading knowledge about the impact of potential outbreaks of disease, especially since SARS. It’s refreshing to see social media used so purposefully.
The streets are vacuous and quiet. Ordinarily, Hanoi is a loud, crowded, motorbike ridden city, so this peace is…(sigh)…morbid. Again, there are no visible signs of panic on the streets. It’s lunchtime here in the office. While I was engulfed in writing this blog-post, everyone else has quietly slipped away. This is the first time that I find myself alone in this building. All I hear are birds chirping outside, and a few horns blowing in the distance. The parking lot is empty. I’m going home.