Fears of COVID surge in Vietnam as workers flee Ho Chi Minh City

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese who once made a living in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s COVID-19 epicentre, are returning to their home provinces in desperation after authorities lifted a strict stay-at-home order last week, raising fears that the highly infectious Delta variant could spread in parts of the country where vaccination rates remain low.

The mass exodus, which began on Friday, has left local officials in the Mekong Delta region and the Central Highlands scrambling to track and quarantine the returnees, many of whom had weathered months of lockdown 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 provinces, the Zing News website reported on Tuesday.

“The sea of people returning home at this time is extremely difficult for our province to handle,” Nguyen Than Binh, a local official in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, was quoted as saying.

“For the past three days, we have worked non-stop to receive, screen, test and provide food and accommodation for people,” he said. “People ride motorbikes all day and night and it rains, so those on duty have to buy raincoats for everyone. We are also providing dumplings, bread, and drinking water to stave off 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 returned positive.

The influx of people has so overwhelmed local authorities’ ability 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 from Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding regions.

The province of Ca Mau, fearing a surge in cases, suspended its plans to loosen COVID-19 curbs on Monday, telling residents to go outside only if necessary.

‘We are afraid to die here’

It was not supposed to be this 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 migrant workers – they did not allow travel between provinces.

But after months of lockdown, the latter weeks during which people were not permitted to go out even for food, many migrant workers were desperate to return to their homes.

When the stay at home order came to an end on Friday, chaotic scenes played out at Ho Chi Minh City’s checkpoints. One video from that day showed migrant workers on their knees, offering incense to security forces in the customary way Vietnamese pray to their ancestors, as they pleaded with the soldiers to let them leave the city.

“You are afraid that your boss will scold you for letting us go, but we are afraid to die here,” a woman could be heard saying.

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