Covid-19 caught the world unaware and has spread at a rapid pace. It has disrupted economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges it presents are real and consequential—especially for the social sector. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector and support intermediaries, CAPS (virtually) sat down with Nguyen Phuong Linh, Executive Director of the Management and Sustainable Development Institute (MSD) in Vietnam, on 8 April 2020. The conversation was followed by an update in October 2020.
MSD is a non-governmental organization working to create an enabling environment for the development of civil society and to promote the rights of marginalized groups, especially children, youth, women and people with disabilities.
Linh shared how the government has worked to mitigate the fall-out from the pandemic, how social organizations in Vietnam are responding and the impact she believes Covid-19 will have on the social sector.
CAPS: Linh, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. What is the situation like on the ground in Vietnam in the wake of Covid-19?
Linh: The situation on the ground is hopeful. The country has passed two waves of Covid-19, from March-April and July-August, with just over 1,000 cases of which the great majority have recovered. There is a consensus among Vietnamese people that the government has been managing the outbreak well.
CAPS: That is great to hear. Can you share more about the government’s response?
Linh: The government has been proactive in addressing public safety and health since the first case was reported in January. This has included sending daily text message updates encouraging citizens to wash their hands, wear masks and, when possible, to stay at home. The government also implemented early testing and detection measures, importing testing kits from Korea to meet this objective. The fact that these measures were taken at the onset of the outbreak is a key reason for the low number of cases in Vietnam.
In March we experienced the first wave of new cases spreading in the community as travelers from Europe returned to Vietnam. To contain the spread, returnees were required to quarantine at government facilitates. Treatment at these facilitates was provided free of charge. After only two months, we had reverted to very low case numbers. A second wave reared its head in mid-July 2020, this time in the center of Vietnam. There were more cases compared to the first wave as well as 35 deaths, but the government again jumped into action very quickly and controlled the situation within a month. Local cases are very rare today. New cases are imported and those affected are separated immediately at the border.
Overall, I would say that low case numbers and a feeling among people that the government is putting public health ahead of economic growth has boosted the public’s trust in the government.
CAPS: Indeed, Vietnam has taken impressive measures that can serve as an example for other countries. How have you at MSD been impacted by Covid?
Linh: We have been able to adapt to the situation quickly and effectively. Some of our key strategies are, firstly, strengthening our human resource capacity and team spirit. To overcome the challenges of the pandemic we need the entire MSD team ready to deal with the new working environment.
Secondly, speeding up technology transformation. We are moving forward by leveraging technology and moving our workshops and training events online and improving social media education and campaigns. Thirdly, we are reviewing our strategy and giving priority to mobilizing resources and implementing programs to provide emergency support to “easy-to-be-left-behind” groups such as children, people with disabilities, migrant workers, etc.
Lastly, we are building capacity of the local social sector to overcome current difficulties with better strategy management and networking. We also conducted a research project on the social sector in Vietnam: we surveyed 101 civil society organizations between 31 March and 10 April 2020 to assess the impact of Covid on civil society, and published our findings in The Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Vietnam.
CAPS: What did the report find?
Linh: In April, after the first wave of Covid-19, almost all (96%) of CSOs surveyed reported their operations were impacted as a result of the outbreak. Mobilizing funds and coordinating with others in the social sector also became more difficult.
Some organizations were adapting to continue supporting their beneficiaries, but this was proving challenging. For example, organizations that provided emergency food aid to food-insecure households were no longer able to provide home delivery and instead had to set up pick-up points, making the process burdensome.
CSOs that had diversified funding sources or long-term donor commitments were able to make the necessary programmatic and operational adjustments. But others, especially smaller organizations, were struggling.
However, after the second wave the social sector adapted better. We now have contingency plans to deal with different situations, ensuring continuous effort in program execution. If we conduct the survey again, I think the social sector will report playing a more active role and finding new ways to overcome the challenges of Covid-19. As far as I know, some organizations, including MSD, have successfully adapted to and in fact widened their impact during Covid.
CAPS: Going forward, what impact do you think Covid-19 will have on the social sector in Vietnam?
Linh: Both challenges and opportunities will come together. I think it is critical for the social sector in Vietnam to sharpen their strategy and management by deploying more flexibility and innovation. Those who can adapt and overcome this situation will be more sustainable in the long run.