Competence and cronyism

The UK, which is very far away from China, has a population of around 66 million people and has officially recorded 635,000 cases of COVID-19 and 43,000 deaths.

Vietnam, which has a long land border with China, has a population of 95 million people. It has recorded 1,113 cases and 35 deaths.

The difference isn’t some special Asian COVID-resistant DNA, as some of the more unhinged right-wing commentators have suggested, or the Vietnamese government suppressing the real scale of the virus; doctors on the ground say the figures match their experiences. It’s that Asia has learnt lessons from previous pandemics and applied them competently.

To take just one example, in Vietnam temperature checks were introduced in Hanoi airport in January before human to human transmission had even been confirmed. In the UK, we started trialling temperature checks for Heathrow arrivals in late May, two months after we went into lockdown. Vietnam began contact tracing and quarantining in January. As The Guardian reports, the UK track and trace system wasn’t announced until late May and it still isn’t working.

the government’s Sage scientific advisers have concluded NHS test and trace is not working.

Too few people are getting tested, results are coming back too slowly and not enough people are sticking to the instructions to isolate, they say.

The system “is having a marginal impact on transmission”, as a result, and unless it grows as fast as the epidemic that impact will only wane.

One of the reasons it isn’t working is that the government decided to outsource everything to private firms instead of using existing public health services. The Guardian again:

The percentage of people reached and asked to provide details of recent close contacts [by the national test and trace system] hit its lowest level since June at the end of September, with performance worsening steadily over the month. It means about 25% of contacts are not reached at all.

Our World In Data has a fascinating and comprehensive explanation of how and why Vietnam responded to COVID. Not everything could have been replicated elsewhere, but in its conclusion the report says that many lessons are applicable to other countries: investing in public health infrastructure, taking early action to curb community spread, having a thorough contact tracing system, quarantining based on possible exposure rather than symptoms, and clear, consistent and serious public communication.

When Vietnam did lockdown and contact tracing, it did it properly. Here, the time lockdown was supposed to buy us wasn’t spent on building an effective track and trace system; it was spent enriching the Government’s mates and giving lucrative contracts to cronies. That’s already killed thousands of people, and it looks likely to kill very many more.