As of mid-July, Vietnam was still shining as a Covid-19 outlier. No deaths reported and months without locally transmitted cases.
Fans gathered at football stadiums, schools reopened, and patrons returned to their favorite cafes.
“We had already returned to a normal life,” said Mai Xuan Tu, 27, from Da Nang in central Vietnam.
Like many others in the coastal town very popular with domestic visitors, she works in the tourism industry and was slowly picking up bookings for the travel agency she had founded.
But at the end of July, Da Nang was the epicenter of a new coronavirus outbreak, the source of which surprised scientists. Cases suddenly increased after 99 consecutive days without local transmission.
Last week, the city experienced the country’s first death from Covid-19, a toll that has since risen to 10.
Weeks earlier, Vietnam had been hailed around the world as a rare pandemic success story.
The communist country acted swiftly and decisively where other nations hesitated, closing its borders to almost all travelers except returning citizens as early as March.
It has quarantined and tested anyone who entered the country at government facilities, and conducted large-scale contact tracing and testing across the country.
So what is wrong?
“I’m not sure anything went wrong,” says Professor Michael Toole, epidemiologist and senior researcher at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne.
Most of the countries that thought they were in control of the pandemic have seen resurgences, he said, citing a long list including Spain, Australia and Hong Kong.
“As in the first wave, Vietnam reacted quickly and forcefully. ”
About 80,000 visitors to Danang – many of whom believed the disease was contained – were flown back quickly after the new cases emerged, as the historic port city isolated from visitors and retreated into a complete lockdown .
The Vietnam spike shows that “once there is a little crack and the virus gets in it, it can spread so quickly,” says Professor Toole.
Scientists and researchers across the country are rushing to find out exactly how it happened.
In Hanoi, Professor Rogier van Doorn, director of the Clinical Research Unit at the University of Oxford, says the source of this latest epidemic remains a “great mystery”.
His team works with the government on its infectious disease programs and some of them focus on what he calls “the work of genetic detection” – the sequencing of viruses that can help light up “the chains of transmission. Who or where does the virus come from ”.
But so far, no one knows how the first new case in Da Nang – a 57-year-old man known as patient 416 – came into contact with the coronavirus.
The lack of knowledge allowed some speculation to take hold.
Local media have published reports suggesting the latest outbreak may have been caused by a more virulent strain of the virus. Others have reported recent cases of human trafficking along the Vietnam-China border.
But there is no evidence to suggest a more deadly strain or that migrants have brought the virus into the country.
A more likely possibility, the researchers said, is that the virus goes undetected during the months when no cases have been reported, potentially being transmitted asymptomatically in the community. Or there could have been an error somewhere in the quarantine process with someone released prematurely.
“There is evidence [the virus] was circulating in Da Nang for several weeks before this first case was diagnosed, ”explains Dr Justin Beardsley, senior lecturer in infectious diseases at the University of Sydney whose research has focused on Vietnam.
There could be elements of people letting their guard down, he adds, while noting that Vietnam has shown exceptionally strong community engagement when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus.
“There was great national pride in controlling the pandemic. And I think it was lacking in some western countries. ”
Since hovering around the 400 mark at the end of July, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Vietnam has exceeded 780. The deputy health minister said he expected the numbers to rise and expected Wednesday that the he epidemic will peak in 10 days.
With recent tourists to Da Nang returning home, cases have been detected in a total of 14 cities and provinces, including the capital and Ho Chi Minh City.
But it has been reassuring, Prof Van Doorn says, that all new cases in other parts of the country so far have been directly linked to the Da Nang outbreak. Importantly, no community transmission has been reported outside the city and the neighboring province. This is something the authorities will be watching closely.
“What was successful before is being redone. I’m impressed again, ”he adds.
“The year we take care of our health”
Among the praise given to Vietnam for its handling of Covid-19 were questions about the accuracy of the authoritarian state’s data, which the medical and diplomatic communities had widely acknowledged to be reliable.
“The new deaths reported show that there is transparency in the reporting of Covid-19 in Vietnam and that the previous ‘no deaths’ should have been questioned in the first place,” Dr Huong Le Thu, analyst principal at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the BBC.
So far, all deaths have been from older patients with co-morbidities.
In Da Nang, people are rehabilitating. The beaches and streets are again practically empty as people only leave home to buy food. All restaurants have been closed, including for take out and deliveries. The flights are blocked.
Every resident is to be tested for the virus and a field hospital has been erected, with every resource dedicated to slowing the spread of the disease.
Freedoms remain mostly intact in other parts of the country, although Hanoi has closed bars and karaoke lounges as an added precaution, and several cities, including the capital and Ho Chi Minh City, have returned the face masks again mandatory in public places.
Like many around the world, Xuan Tu rides with the uncertainty triggered by the pandemic.
“This year is now the year we take care of our health. Focus on the family. The most important things, ”she said.