Hanoi in March. Photo: Linh Pham/Getty Images

It’s hard to say which is more remarkable: that Vietnam has recorded zero COVID-19 deaths despite a population of 96 million, or that the communist government expects the economy to grow by 5% this year during a massive global recession.

Why it matters: Both numbers deserve some scrutiny, but there’s no evidence a major outbreak is being covered up, and the bullishness about Vietnam’s economy is shared by the IMF and World Bank (though their growth estimates are lower). The southeast Asian country may ultimately be the pandemic’s biggest success story.

How it happened: Vietnam shares a border and deep economic links with China, and recorded its first case on Jan. 23.

  • It quarantined an affected region near Hanoi in mid-February, and quickly scaled up an impressive contact tracing regime, knowing it lacked the resources to conduct mass testing.
  • The government distributed information about the outbreak via text message, and told Vietnamese it was their patriotic duty to wash their hands and self-isolate.
  • “The steps are easy to describe but difficult to implement, yet they’ve been very successful at implementing them over and over again,” Matthew Moore, a CDC official based in Hanoi told Reuters.

Zoom in: Vietnam is a surveillance state, where citizens are monitored online and by "standing armies of neighborhood wardens and public security officers who keep constant watch over city blocks," Bill Hayton and Tro Ly Ngheo write in Foreign Policy.

  • “The structures that control epidemics are the same ones that control public expressions of dissent," they write.
  • Hundreds of people have been fined for causing “unnecessary panic” or undermining the “national unifying cause” through their social media posts, Global Voices reports. At least three have been jailed.

The big picture: Like China, Vietnam has since the late 1980s paired political repression with economic liberalization.

  • It brought extreme poverty down from above 50% to near-zero in that time, and over the last decade has seen the second-fastest economic growth in the world, behind China.

The pandemic has punctured most other formerly fast-growing economies in the developing world, but not Vietnam's.

  • Vietnam has had some luck, says Jacques Morisset, the World Bank’s Program Leader for Vietnam. Demand for its chief commodity export, rice, has only grown during the pandemic.
  • The government also started from a strong position — in sound fiscal health and with emergency funds ready to be tapped.
  • When the pandemic struck, it acted “with a combination of foresight and pragmatism” and “no sense of panic,” says Morriset.

Where things stand: Vietnam’s economy is benefiting on at least two fronts: it was one of the first in the world to re-open with few restrictions, and it was already enjoying a flood of investment as companies like Apple shifted manufacturing to hedge against over-reliance on China.

  • Vietnam is also expediting some major infrastructure projects as part of its coronavirus stimulus, the FT reports.
  • One sector that has been hit is tourism, which accounts for 9% of GDP. The government plans to resume flights soon, but only for countries that have had no new cases for 30 days.

The bottom line: This pandemic's success stories include authoritarian states like Vietnam as well as democracies like Australia, Germany and South Korea.

  • They're aligned not by style of governance but early, competent action — and a bit of luck.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated Sep 18, 2020 - Health

World coronavirus updates

Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Though health workers represent less than 3% of the population in many countries, they account for around 14% of the coronavirus cases reported to the World Health Organization, WHO announced Thursday.

Why it matters: The WHO called on governments and health care leaders to address threats facing the health and safety of these workers, adding that the pandemic has highlighted how protecting them is needed to ensure a functioning health care system.

Coronavirus cases increase in 17 states

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

Coronavirus infections ticked up slightly over the past week, thanks to scattered outbreaks in every region of the country.

Where it stands: The U.S. has been making halting, uneven progress against the virus since August. Overall, we're moving in the right direction, but we're often taking two steps forward and one step back.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 30,393,591 — Total deaths: 950,344— Total recoveries: 20,679,272Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 6,722,699 — Total deaths: 198,484 — Total recoveries: 2,556,465 — Total tests: 92,163,649Map.
  3. Politics: In reversal, CDC again recommends coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people.
  4. Health: Massive USPS face mask operation called off The risks of moving too fast on a vaccine.
  5. Business: Unemployment drop-off reverses course 1 million mortgage-holders fall through safety netHow the pandemic has deepened Boeing's 737 MAX crunch.
  6. Education: At least 42% of school employees are vulnerable.