The mass exodus, which began on Friday, left local officials in the Mekong Delta and central highlands region scrambling to track and quarantine returnees, many of whom had gone through months of confinement without work or sufficient food in Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding provinces.
So far, at least 200 positive cases have been found among the 160,000 people who have returned to their home province, the Zing News website reported on Tuesday.
“The flow of people returning to their homes right now is extremely difficult for our province to manage,” said Nguyen Than Binh, a local official in An Giang province in the Mekong Delta.
“Over the past three days, we have worked tirelessly to receive, screen, test and provide food and accommodation to people,” he said. “People ride motorcycles all day and all night and it rains, so those on duty have to buy raincoats for everyone. We also provide dumplings, bread and clean water to quench their hunger and thirst.
Of the 30,000 people who arrived in An Giang by motorbike, only half have been tested so far, he said. Some 44 tests came back positive.
The influx of people has so exceeded the ability of local authorities to screen returnees for COVID-19 that at least two provinces in the Mekong Delta region – Soc Trang and Hau Giang – have asked the central government to suspend departures. of Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding areas.
Ca Mau province, fearing an increase in the number of cases, on Monday suspended plans to loosen COVID-19 curbs, telling residents to come out only if necessary.
“We are afraid of dying here”
It wasn’t meant to be that way.
When authorities lifted the strict stay-at-home order in Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding provinces of Long An, Binh Duong and Dong Nai – which are Vietnam’s economic powerhouse and home to some 3.5 million workers migrants – they did not allow movement between provinces.
But after months of confinement, in recent weeks in which people were not allowed to go out even to eat, many migrant workers were desperate to return home.
When the stay-at-home order ended on Friday, chaotic scenes unfolded at checkpoints in Ho Chi Minh City. Video from that day showed migrant workers on their knees, offering incense to security forces in the Vietnamese customary way of praying to their ancestors, as they begged soldiers to let them leave the city.
“You’re afraid your boss will scold you for letting us go, but we’re afraid of dying here,” one woman could be heard saying.
On Friday morning, at another checkpoint on the southwestern outskirts of the city, in Binh Chanh district, thousands of people on motorcycles gathered and children slept on the side of the road while waiting for them. we let them pass.
“I haven’t eaten anything and all I’ve eaten lately is instant noodles,” Lang Thi Thanh, one of the men waiting at the checkpoint, told a local film crew. in Vietnamese. “I was working as a bricklayer and I have already lost my job for four months. I had no money for food at all.
Another woman, Tran Thi Thanh, said she no longer knew how to survive in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I am still in debt of 40 million Vietnamese dongs [$1,762] and I have no money to buy food. “Tell me how can I stay? “I don’t want anything now but to come home,” she said.
As dawn approached and security forces refused to let workers pass, scuffles broke out and people knocked down the barricades that kept them from leaving the city.
“They broke the barrier between Ho Chi Minh City and Long An province to return home after four months of hunger here,” 32-year-old Ho Chi Minh City resident Nguyen Thao told Al Jazeera. “It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this. People wouldn’t be so aggressive if they weren’t pushed to the brink of life… I think at that point they have to break the rule to survive.
Similar scenes also took place on Saturday in neighboring Bin Duong province, where a video showed crowds at a dead end with police in riot gear.
Long trip home
Amid the chaos, authorities in Ho Chi Minh City changed tactics and allowed people to leave, but said returnees should be tested and quarantined when they returned home. While continuing to urge people not to leave “unsupervised”, the authorities organized 113 buses on Saturday to bring 8,000 migrants home. Police in neighboring Dong Nai province escorted 14,000 people on motorcycles out of the area on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands more, however, returned without official supervision.
Images released to local media on Sunday showed exhausted travelers resting on piles of bricks and on the ground while waiting to be treated at an isolation center in mountainous Dak Lak province. Other images from Tuesday show dozens of people traveling thousands of miles in the rain with their luggage strapped to their motorcycles.
Some even tried to walk home.
Yeah TV, a local television station, posted an image to Facebook on Sunday of a man walking along a freeway while pushing a stroller carrying his two young children. The channel said the man started in Dong Nai and would walk 39 hours to his home in Tra Vinh province.
Analysts and charity workers blame the Vietnamese government for the chaos.
They say authorities failed to provide sufficient assistance to migrant workers in Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding areas during the months-long restrictions, which began in late June and were extended on August 23 to a near ban. total to leave their home.
Some 130,000 troops have been deployed to the city to enforce the ban, and more than 300 barricades – some with barbed wire – have been erected to prevent people from moving between neighborhoods.
“Government support was too weak. It was never enough, ”Ha Hoang Hop, principal investigator of the Vietnamese studies program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera. ” [They left] because they have lost their jobs and have no new job opportunities.
Some struggled to find enough to eat.
“People had very dark faces,” Ngo Thi Bich Huyen of Saigon Children’s Charity told Al Jazeera. “They had no money to eat and no money to pay the rent for their room and the children had no milk to drink. They could only count on a bunch of vegetables or rice or food from the church or from charities. “
The trial continues
The easing of Ho Chi Minh City’s lockdown – which has come with 99% of the city’s adult population receiving at least one dose of vaccine and 60% of both doses – and the departure of migrant workers does not end their ordeal, however.
While many returnees have received at least one jab, Ho Chi Minh City still registers thousands of new cases every day; the city reported 2,490 positive cases and 93 deaths on Monday, compared to the COVID-19 one-day peak of 8,499 infections and more than 200 deaths in early September.
The provinces to which migrant workers return have low vaccination rates.
In provinces with the highest number of returnees – An Giang, Kien Giang, Dak Lak and Soc Trang – vaccination rates for those who have received a dose range from a low of 13.7% in Dak Lak to a high of 41.8% in Kien Giang. The percentage of people fully vaccinated is lowest in Soc Trang at 4.7 percent, while An Giang has the highest full vaccination rate at 8 percent.
Vietnam has a limited vaccine supply and its vaccination campaign has prioritized major cities and hard-hit Ho Chi Minh City. As a result, only 10.9 million people in the country have been fully immunized, which is just over 11% of its population.
Amid fears that returnees could cause epidemics in the Delta, local authorities are asking workers to pay for their time in isolation, but many say they can’t afford it after spending months without income.
“At the moment, all primary and secondary schools are being converted into makeshift dormitories,” a Vietnamese economist told Al Jazeera who did not want his name to be used. “These interprovincial emigrants still have to pay 80,000 VND [$3.50 ] per day for seven days of quarantine if they have received at least one vaccine and for two PCR tests.
The PCR tests each cost 700,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $ 30.
“You need to be quarantined for 14 days out of your pocket,” he said. “Many will find it difficult to pay. “
A family that Huyen, the Saigon Children’s Charity charity worker, helped during the lockdown is among those fighting the cost of testing and quarantine after leaving Ho Chi Minh City.
The family of five lived near Huyen’s house in the city’s Go Vap district, but when she visited them in late September, they were gone.
“I called him to ask him ‘where are you?’ to ask him where he had been, but he replied, “I have no more money and I am not able to pay the rent for the room, so I had to go back,” Huyen said.
Now the family is in quarantine in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta region, where the man she spoke to is worried about how to pay the quarantine fees and support his family.
“His family has to stay isolated for 14 days, but he is also worried about how to pay the money because he told me that for one day for one person he has to pay 80,000,” she said. .
“It’s difficult because he still needs money to pay for his children’s food as well. “
“It’s a very sad story. ”