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.