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Life inside Vietnam’s army-run quarantine camps

Life inside Vietnam’s army-run quarantine camps

  • Vietnam has over 22,000 people in government-run Covid-19 quarantine facilities, and over 30,000 in home quarantine
  • A woman in a quarantine camp described sleeping on a bamboo mat on a bed and getting toiletries and three meals a day, but is happy with the conditions
Sen Nguyen

Sen Nguyen

Published: 6:30pm, 24 Mar, 2020

British tourist Gavin Wheeldon raises a thumbs-up with two medical staff in his room at Son Tay Military School quarantine camp in Hanoi. Photo: Gavin Wheeldon

British tourist Gavin Wheeldon raises a thumbs-up with two medical staff in his room at Son Tay Military School quarantine camp in Hanoi. Photo: Gavin WheeldonBefore returning home to Vietnam from the UK last week, Phuong Chinh already knew she would be sent to a government-run mandatory coronavirus quarantine camp. She flinched at the idea at first, but decided it was safer to be back home.“I think staying in Britain is not safe because the government there does not have any clear measures when it comes to disease prevention or treating the infected,” said 24-year-old Chinh, a master’s student in marketing in London.

Chinh also faced racial discrimination in the UK, saying people pointed at her and called her “corona” because she was Asian.

She was among the thousands of overseas Vietnamese who rushed to secure flights home after the government announced that all travellers from the United States, Europe and Asean countries would face a 14-day quarantine in government-run facilities upon their arrival from March 17. This was in addition to quarantine measures already in place for travellers from mainland China and countries that had seen a surge in cases, such as Iran, Italy and South Korea.

People play sports in groups on the courtyard at Son Tay Military School quarantine camp in Hanoi. Photo: Gavin Wheeldon

People play sports in groups on the courtyard at Son Tay Military School quarantine camp in Hanoi. Photo: Gavin Wheeldon

By the time Chinh flew home, the quarantine measures were already in place.

As of Monday, Vietnam had quarantined some 22,490 people, while over 30,000 others are being supervised under home quarantines, according to the Ministry of Health’s public portal.

Vietnam has also doubled down on its entry restrictions. Since Sunday, all foreign travellers except diplomats and those with special approval are banned until further notice – similar to measures taken by Singapore, Malaysia, and now Hong Kong.Coronavirus Updates NewsletterGet updates direct to your inboxBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy PolicyThe country has reported 123 Covid-19 cases and no deaths, but this is a surge from mid-February when it reported that all 16 cases at the time had recovered. In the weeks that followed, there was a sharp rise in imported cases from Europe and the US, including a Hanoi woman who returned from London and tested positive on March 6.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday said the next 10-15 days would be decisive in the country’s fight against the coronavirus, according to a government statement.

Chinh has been in a quarantine camp near Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, run by soldiers and medical staff, since last Friday. She is awaiting the results of her coronavirus test but has shown no symptoms.

She described the conditions at the camp, saying there is no curfew or ban on communications but participants cannot leave for 14 days, even if they test negative.

There are six people in her room. They each get their own bed with a bamboo mat instead of mattress, a blanket, a pillow, and a mosquito net. Drinking water, three meals a day, and personal items like towels, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and mouthwash are provided for free.

“The conditions can’t be like home, but this is OK for me. Yesterday we asked the soldiers for morning glory [a popular Vietnamese vegetable dish] because we had a huge craving. They made it for us on the same day.”

Staff in protective clothing deliver food in a quarantine camp in Dong Thap Province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Photo: Phuong Chinh

Staff in protective clothing deliver food in a quarantine camp in Dong Thap Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Phuong Chinh

A British citizen who did not want to be named said he and his wife have been in a quarantine camp in Saigon since last Friday, after having returned from a “low-risk foreign country”.

Conditions appear to be similar to Chinh’s camp and are the same for both foreigners and Vietnamese quarantined there, photos and videos provided to This Week in Asia show.

But unlike Chinh, the British man and his wife have not received any guidance or been tested since their arrival. He has kept himself up to date with developments at the camp thanks to information passed on to him by a Vietnamese-Australian, who is also in quarantine.

We are very scared about being infected in the camp … Who knows who has it?

British man in quarantine

Since they have not been tested, the British man is afraid he and his wife may be asymptomatic and he has kept his distance from everyone at the camp, including his wife.

“We are very scared about being infected in the camp because there are so many people here from all over the world. Who knows who has it?

“The people here are working very hard in very difficult conditions and we have nothing but respect for what they are doing,” he said.

They have received care packages from friends since sharing their story on social media, getting mostly snacks and toilet paper.

Englishman Gavin Wheeldon, who flew from Britain to Hanoi on March 14, only heard about the quarantine requirements when he landed. The 27-year-old was among the few foreigners on the flight who agreed to the measure instead of finding an outbound flight.

“Mostly we felt afraid. We didn’t know where we were going and what was waiting for us,” Wheeldon said.

But these fears dissipated after spending time at Son Tay Military School quarantine camp in Hanoi.

Foreigners like him receive communication support from a volunteer interpreter who lives in the camp.

A medical staff member and security guards wearing face masks stand at the entrance of a private hospital under quarantine following a visit by a Vietnamese woman who arrived from London and later tested positive for coronavirus. Photo: AFP

A medical staff member and security guards wearing face masks stand at the entrance of a private hospital under quarantine following a visit by a Vietnamese woman who arrived from London and later tested positive for coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Although basic needs are covered, there is no Wi-fi. A soldier who works at the camp helped him get a SIM card with internet data to stay connected with his loved ones.

He has been recording life inside the camp using his phone and camera, which is not prohibited.

“Many staff have waved when I was taking footage. They don’t discourage it because it’s been good news I think. It obviously paints them in a good light, which they deserve,” he said.

In one of the videos he sent to This Week in Asia, camp officials are heard over a loudspeaker telling people to open the windows so sunlight can enter to help disinfect their rooms.

Participants can have packages sent to them, as long as they do not include money or alcohol. “Many people here have been sent badminton rackets and footballs so there’s a lot of sports here every day,” he said.

There seems to be a clear sense of boundaries within the camp, with fences erected in the hallway to separate rooms and an understanding not to enter other people’s rooms.

Wheeldon has tested negative for Covid-19 but he is still afraid of contracting the virus when he gets out as he does not want to accidentally spread it.

“For the elderly and the vulnerable, it could mean the difference between life and death. I wouldn’t want to be the reason someone doesn’t see their grandparents again,” he said.

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