Vietnam’s campaign against COVID-19 is infused with military imagery, playing into existing strands of national identity.
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Khoa expected the warlike atmosphere to disappear after he tested negative for COVID-19 and was allowed to travel to his home in Hanoi. But he soon realized that the militaristic imagery did not end at the gates of the quarantine camp. Outside, the country seemed to be at war with COVID-19, which has blighted almost every corner of the globe.
With a population of almost 96 million people, Vietnam was extremely vulnerable to the pandemic, which began in neighboring China. Yet, as of today, Vietnam has recorded just over 1,100 cases and 35 deaths, and has gone 46 days with no community-transmitted cases.
The Vietnamese success in dealing with coronavirus has been recorded by numerous Western outlets including the BBC, the Telegraph, and the Wall Street Journal. Many commentators have pointed out that much of this success was possible due to the authoritarian rule of the Vietnamese Communist Party. According to this perspective, repression and authoritarianism facilitated an aggressive track-and-trace system and immediate lockdown orders, which would be difficult to replicate in democratic countries.
Arguments for authoritarianism as the sole catalyst for Vietnamese success, however, do not account for the complexity behind the government messaging that accompanied the strict lockdown and tracing measures. Vietnam’s government, in fact, crafted narratives rooted in the intricate history and recent cultural memory of the country in order to encourage solidarity and collective action.
As a country that could not afford expensive mass testing equipment like South Korea, or utilize an efficient medical system like China, Vietnam was especially reliant on its citizens for cooperation. It thus employed a propaganda-style campaign to make sure every person took the pandemic seriously. The government’s messaging, which has infiltrated citizens’ everyday life via posters, slogans, mass media, and loudspeaker systems, evokes Vietnam’s past military conflicts.
Whether it’s a public official vowing to “Beat the pandemic like beating invaders,” or a daily newscaster announcing that “We will prevail over this virus, as we’ve prevailed over many previous enemies,” the nation approached COVID-19 as if it were a military adversary. The system of loudspeakers, set up in the 1960s specifically for the purpose of alerting citizens of immediate attacks and bombings during the Vietnam War, is now utilized for COVID-19 related updates. The government has also commissioned the arts industry to produce public service announcements via songs and videos, which, alongside promoting personal hygiene and social distancing, read like war songs.
For example, “Believe in Vietnam,” composed in conjunction with the National Health Department, has a rap verse with these lyrics:
The Vietnamese army, we march to save a nation [a reference to the Vietnamese national anthem]
Overcoming hardships, we are going forward
Through 4,000 years of history, Vietnam is still here
We sing to overwhelm the explosions with our voices
Carry the burning courage of this country’s millions hearts
We are indomitable, we carry the “must fight, must win” tradition of our army
For many years, we’ve overcome hardships
We got our independence and freedom.
To a listener oblivious to the context of this song, these lines may seem pulled from a war anthem, not a campaign to keep citizens informed about COVID-19.
The government is not the only source of such initiatives. Individual citizens have demonstrated a similar willingness to frame the coronavirus response as a patriotic, militaristic act. A number of young musicians were quick to compose COVID-19 related songs, with many echoing similar war motifs, albeit to a lesser extent. For example, in a song titled “Stop invader corona,” the singers refer to doctors and medical staff as “shock troops,” while also repeatedly appealing to the need to unify the whole country. In “COVID, quickly go away,” the contrast between the pop sound and the patriotic lyrics is striking:
My green and fresh Fatherland,
I have loved this country.
The virus-invader, don’t expect to rampage;
When enemies invade our homes, women will also fight.
Numerous poems on the topic were published in magazines and social media. Most notably, the following poem by a literature teacher went viral, gathering 42,000 likes and 4,200 shares on Facebook:
The Prime Minister has issued an order, have you heard clearly;
“In this war no one will be left behind”;
[…] Let me draw a picture of the Fatherland in your heart.
The streets are filled with propaganda-style posters, similar to those circulated in the Vietnam War. Peasants and soldiers have been replaced by essential workers standing against backgrounds of raised fists. Slogans on some of these posters read, “To love your country is to stay home.” In some cases, the military-style messaging has been initiated spontaneously, without any prior preparation: For example, on the day of lockdown easing in Da Nang, doctors started singing a famous war victory song in celebration. The song, titled “As if Ho Chi Minh was here on the day of Great Victory,” has the repeated refrain “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.” It was originally written in 1975 to celebrate the victory of North Vietnam over the American forces.
The militaristic imagery is having an impact. Many young Vietnamese have independently volunteered to help at COVID-19 posts, hospitals, and quarantine camps, again expressing their resolve to “win” the pandemic.
The militarization of health crises, and COVID-19 in particular, is not a new phenomenon. France’s Emmanuel Macron has referred to the pandemic as an “invisible, elusive” enemy, while Donald Trump in the United States described himself as a “wartime president.” In the U.K., Boris Johnson has spoken of the virus as an enemy and pledged to act “like any wartime government” to support the economy. War metaphors, however, have been criticized for inciting social divisions and panic without resulting in productive policies. These are valid concerns which explain the relative reluctance of the Western leaders to frame the COVID-19 response in strongly militarized terms.
Vietnam most likely decided to adopt a different strategy for two reasons. First, if there is a strong, consistent message and reliable source, war metaphors have been shown to mobilize a more focused response and heightened gravitas. For example, a study published in Medical Decision Making has shown that participants are more likely to get a flu shot when the disease was described metaphorically – for example, as an invading army – compared to participants who only received a standard description of the flu. War metaphors also serve as a cognitive tool for people link a recognizable concept to a more abstract, unfamiliar one. In another study published in Cognitive Psychology, participants were asked to read a scenario in which an army successfully besieged a city by surrounding it from multiple sides. The study then followed up with a medical problem: the need to remove a tumor without damaging surrounding tissues. Participants who were asked to link the current problem to the military scenario were more likely to think of a solution than those who did not.
The second reason is that a large part of the Vietnamese cultural imagination is built on national unity against “foreign invaders.” Children’s history textbooks make almost no references to peaceful periods of Vietnamese history, focusing instead on the numerous revolts against foreign rule and heroic sacrifices of various martyrs. The fights against France, China, and the United States are still embossed in the memory of many Vietnamese citizens, thus enabling the Vietnamese government to evoke associations with the current crisis. Framing a novel obstacle by tapping into recent memories, common identity and traditions, paired with consistent message, has resulted in higher trust in the state. Independent YouGov’s research has found that 94 percent of Vietnamese citizens said they trust the state on COVID-19, compared with just over 40 percent in the U.S. This, in turn, resulted in less – rather than more – panic and social divisions.
Vietnam’s swift and successful response, then, cannot be explained merely as attempts to restrict personal freedoms. It needs to be read in the context of the country’s history, culture, and the urgency of the current circumstances. Because of its specificity, it is not an approach that can be replicated uniformly across all countries. A similar framing of the COVID-19 response in other countries would be unrealistic and, in many cases, undesirable. At its core, however, the Vietnamese militarization of COVID-19 messaging is only part of a wider goal to cultivate solidarity and a common identity. It demonstrates the importance of crafting a persistent and coherent narrative, understanding one’s past to shape the present, and using all means available to foster a sense of unity. Other countries, such as Taiwan and New Zealand, have likewise been remarkably successful in cultivating high levels of social cohesion, which helped to keep the pandemic at bay. No matter what the means are, it is clear that those who stay united manage to persevere in the face of the hardest situations.
Maya Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate with a research focus on the Vietnam War and Southeast Asian history and politics.