To cite this article: Tram Luong (2020) COVID-19 Dispatches from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 45-49, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761209
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1761209
March 2, 2020, could have been just another day in Ho Chi Minh City, the economic powerhouse of Vietnam, except it was not. The symbolic skyscraper that had come to define the Saigon skyline in recent years, named Landmark 81, jutted into a crystal-clear blue sky. Like many Southeast Asian cities of its size, this city is no stranger to air pollution, and the hazy silhouettes of Landmark 81 had become something I had taken for granted. This was until the CO- VID-19 pandemic saturated the headlines in local news and became the only talk of the town. The spread of COVID-19 around the world has coincided with a massive movement of human interactions from the physical sphere to digitally mediated interfaces, radically restructuring what ethnography and ethnographic “field” mean to anthropologists. As citizens transmitted the cornucopia of virus-related texts and images from device to device, all the while complaining about the slow speed of the internet, the tower appeared higher and clearer.
A Vietnamese national living in Saigon, I had woken up the night before near the stroke of midnight to a flood of messages from friends and family members. Since mid- February, when the disease started to transgress borders and showed up in several countries around the world, messages, in lieu of person-to-person meetings, had become our primary mode of communication. “New case of corona virus in Hanoi after 2 weeks!” the message from a friend read. What came next was ethnographically revealing — a flux of conversations that lasted into the early hours of the morning.
Details of the confirmed patient, dubbed patient N17, started to circulate the network to a point of overload. “Rumor has it the Minister of Investment and Planning was on that flight too!” another message read, this time from an acquaintance with connection to the government. Around the city of Hanoi, where the case was reported, uncertainty quickly triggered a wave of hysteria online and beyond. It was not hard to stay glued to the screen as image after image of people in line at grocery stores surfaced through- out the night. It seems the people of Vietnam were split in two that night: not those with or without the disease, but rather those who stayed awake and those who slept peacefully through the night. The latter group would wake having unknowingly entered a new and bewilderingly uncertain world.
I found myself wondering what anthropology had to offer in this time of global precarity. Surely long-standing anthropological concerns had insights for understanding these new configurations of human interaction, facilitated by the new global pandemic and the worldwide governmental measures put in place to fight it. Writing on the power structure that underpins statehood, Thomas Hobbes argued in his political doctrine Leviathan about the existence of a state of nature, a condition of perpetual war among people wherein everyone is against everyone else.1 Within this context, each person is conditioned by the right of nature, by which they exercise the liberty to use their own power for the preservation of their own life. They also live according to the law of nature, by which they are forbidden to do that which is destructive to their life. Whereas rights al- low for the liberty of actions, laws bind and bound their possibilities. The Leviathan, as explained by Hobbes, operates according to a covenant by which individuals transfer the right to defend themselves to the state in exchange for protection, and thus promised peace and prosperity.
What I have been witnessing in Vietnam (and many other countries) over the past few months resembles much of a Hobbesian dystopia, a return to the state of nature. Panic buying mushroomed across the country. It even induced violence in extreme cases. The hoarding of masks started in Vietnam as early as one week into the outbreak in China. One afternoon outside a local Pharmacity, a popular drugstore chain in Vietnam, families of three or four could be spotted balancing themselves and bulging bags of groceries on their Honda motorbikes. While one parent stayed outside with the kids, the other would hurry inside for a last pack of medical masks, all in vain. Just at that moment, like the Leviathan in a Hobbesian account, the state stepped in with a decree to fine all pharmacies that increased the price of masks.
To dissuade people from panic buying, state-sponsored messages popped up on all citizens’ mobile phones every other day, and almost every day after the case of patient N17. These messages assured people of the steady supply of essential goods. The Vietnamese state, a Leviathan, entered a critical political test during the pandemic. As I submit this essay, doubts and reservations against the leadership still abound. There exists a general frustration with the lack of reportage and scholarship, in the Vietnamese language or otherwise, on the psychological impact of COVID-19 and the ensuing measures of social isolation. Dubbed in the jargon of “social distancing,” the solution to COVID-19 seems rigorously technical, scientific. And yet the sociality of “social distancing” goes beyond the so-called data-driven solution. It lies in the laments over prolonged confinement of students to the realm of domesticity, the burden on the households and women and the normalization of fear and paranoia.
Nevertheless, a renewed trust in the government also surfaced. Known in recent years as a regime with little tolerance for political dissent, the Vietnamese government and its medical apparatus have received considerable praise at home and abroad for their expediency. Vietnamese citizens, old and young, engaged in lively debates on the meaning of specific policies, the validity of viral news (pun intended) and the rights and duties of individuals in civic participation, all of which had been parts of the Vietnamese social life for quite some time, now aggravated to an unprecedented level. At a local café in early March, stylish young Vietnamese shared videos of a Vietnamese influencer who voluntarily went into quarantine after flying back from Europe, praising the individual as having awareness (có ý thức). The case was compared sharply with that of patient N17, allegedly an affluent individual who shared a similar itinerary but was said to have dodged quarantine intentionally upon return. “The individual lacks awareness and thus affects the effort of the whole country and the government” (vô ý thức, làm ảnh hưởng đến công sức của cả đất nước và chính quyền) was a common evaluation among in- formants. With such comments, they likened nonconformity in current times to a marker of privilege. Even worse, it embodied a total disregard for the safety of others and the hard work of the authorities.
Whether this wave of civic engagement will materialize into new and lasting forms of civic life in the coming months remains a question. As Hannah Arendt quipped, the Hobbesian equation does not successfully incorporate individuals into a political com- munity — people do not necessarily owe a political loyalty to the Leviathan, especially so if it is defeated.2 Political membership as such is temporary and constricted as individuals retain their solitary characters without an actual bond with their fellow people. As citizens battle conflicting news from inside their homes and attempt to guard against the virus, it remains to be seen if new configurations of belonging will arise to reorient Vietnamese people toward a different political future.
In newly developed District 2, Ho Chi Minh City’s best social establishments struggle to stay relevant, or in business, as locals eschew outings. The main patrons to these last open bars and restaurants are primarily foreigners, many of them hailing from North American or European countries now in dire condition over COVID-19. A few days after the diagnosis of patient N17, at BigC, one of the main supermarkets servicing the well- to-do Thao Dien neighborhood, people from all walks of life shared the shopping aisles with tentative caution. While there was a clear preference among locals at this point to use face masks, participation from foreigners had been lukewarm at best. As such, patrons to the supermarkets navigated the rows of goods and human bodies around them on heightened alert. The gaze became reversed, bodies othered. People who would otherwise become subject to the gaze of outsiders now directed it outward onto the outsiders them- selves.
To mask or not to mask, the adage of everyday life in Vietnam since the outset of CO- VID-19, renews the weight of biopolitics. In the vision of a masked face, or an unmasked face, divergent paradigms of how to care as a community collide.3 Masks can be under- stood as relational, that is to say, they are not separate entities in a class of similar things but rather as entities in separate classes that can be combined in different ways.4 While tourists and expatriates point to mounting evidence from the World Health Organization that widespread use of masks is unwarranted, many locals consider their use of masks to be preemptive protection for oneself and one’s community. Such deliberation is precisely the result of incomplete information from the top down and a general hesitation to entrust individual lives completely to the authorities and other human beings. These opinions consolidate into contrasting poles of guided actions, whereby people — Vietnamese or otherwise — pick and choose from a variety of ways to copy physically with the invisible virus.
If the past is any indication, memories of war and sufferings in Vietnam have not yet succumbed to the totality of capitalist de- sires. They continue to surge today in the ways people brace themselves for societal isolation (cách ly xã hội) since the first of April, knowing their health and wealth can hang by a thread. The ghost of war is present in the scenes of entire streets in Hanoi in quarantine. There is the tank of the Chemistry Brigade5 rolling in, and there are mothers complaining they could not get enough meat, just like during the centralization pe- riod (thời bao cấp). Collective trauma and global panic, coupled with a newfound and yet precarious sense of trust for the government, situate Vietnam in a unique position. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people find themselves in yet another peculiar disposition where they have to convince foreigners, many of them Westerners who once embodied the vision of a more developed and modernized world, to put on masks and stay at home, to adapt to a new regime of handling their own bodies and regulations that locals believe would best aid the preservation of their vulnerable lives. Vulnerable indeed these lives are.
The spread of COVID-19 follows decisive fault lines along structures of inequality and discrimination that were exacerbated by the discontents of globalization. Around the world, efforts to contain the virus come against pressures to maintain the international movements of trades and services. As countries from Asia to Europe put themselves in lockdown, questions remain over whose bodies are counted as “grievable” by a state, to borrow Judith Butler’s concept of a “grievable life.”6 Countries are tackling the question of COVID-19 primarily within a national framework, without considering the obsolescence of nationalism in an increasingly connected world. Importantly, I say “obsolescence” and not “irrelevance,” for nationalism is making a persistent comeback in a globalized world despite its apparent short- comings. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is providing a litmus test for age-old political systems. In recent weeks I have seen the rigorous exercise of multiple “biopolitical” care regimes, or forms of governance, that are concerned merely with maintaining the life of the whole population, as Lisa Stevenson aptly noted in her 2014 study of the treatment of Inuit people during two historic epidemics in Canada.7 Unpacking the Canadian attitudes toward Inuits in these two periods — namely, the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1940s to 1960s and the ongoing suicide epidemic — Stevenson argued that a logic of care that focuses solely on physical deaths unwittingly ignores the fatality of psychic death. A people that has witnessed the mass death of its members, though in statistically small numbers compared with the total population, do not come out of the tragedy the same. The operation of a biopolitical care regime, while saving real lives around the clock, will leave undeniable marks on our collective psychological life.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1900) [Lon- don: A. Crooke, 1651].
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarian- ism (New York: Harcourt, 1951), 140.
- My task here is not to discuss the appropriate use of masks, but for guidance, see the World Health Organization’s website daily for minute instructions.
- M. C. Jedrej, “A Comparison of Some Masks from North America, Africa, and Melanesia,” Journal of Anthropological Research 36, no. 2 (1980): 220–30. Accessed March 17, 2020. http://www. jstor.org/stable/3629477.
- The Chemistry Brigade is a specialized di- vision within the People’s Army of Vietnam that focuses on the containment of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear threats.
- Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010).
- Lisa Stevenson, Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).
Tram Luong is a graduate student in anthropology at Yale University.