Spared for Months, Vietnam Faces a Wave of New Infections

For more than 20 years, the husband and wife were stalwarts of their evangelical community: pastors who founded a small church in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where they led services and distributed food and clothing to the needy.

Now, the couple are pariahs. They have been blamed by the authorities for a major coronavirus outbreak, are facing a criminal investigation and have been held accountable on social media for a lockdown in their neighborhood and a ban on religious services nationwide.

The Protestant pastors, Phuong Van Tan and Vo Xuan Loan, who are hospitalized with Covid-19, are accused by city health officials of allowing parishioners to pray together without wearing masks, a violation of coronavirus protocols that officials say resulted in an outbreak in May linked to more than 200 cases.

Vietnam has prided itself on successfully containing the coronavirus since the pandemic began. As the country’s neighbors tallied their dead and imposed nationwide lockdowns, the Vietnamese government kept the virus at bay by relying on strict quarantine measures, diligent contact tracing and localized lockdowns.

The Communist nation has recorded 7,572 cases and just 48 deaths since January of last year, according to a New York Times database. By contrast, nearby Malaysia, which imposed a national lockdown on Tuesday, has recently recorded higher case numbers in a single day.

But the church cluster in Ho Chi Minh City, outbreaks at factories in the country’s north and the emergence of a troubling new variant all suggest that Vietnam’s luck may be running out. More than half of the country’s cases have occurred in the past month.

“Vietnam is now officially entering the pandemic,” Tran Van Phuc, a doctor who posts frequently about the virus, wrote on Facebook. “The next 12 months will be the most difficult in controlling the number of infections so as not to overwhelm the health system and limit the number of deaths.”

Dr. Phuc said the country’s low rate of vaccinations combined with the new outbreaks place Vietnam in the position that many countries faced early last year.

On Monday, the government ordered a two-week lockdown of the Go Vap District of Ho Chi Minh City, home to about 700,000 people and the neighborhood in which the couple’s church, Revival Ekklesia Mission, is located. Residents were ordered to stay home as much as they could, work from home if possible, avoid other people and wear masks in public. A smaller part of the city, Thanh Loc Ward in District 12, was placed under the same order.

Large gatherings have been banned across the city, Vietnam’s most populous, and the government said it planned to test its nine million inhabitants.

Health officials believe that the church cluster started with Ms. Loan, who traveled to Hanoi, the capital, in late April and began experiencing symptoms about two weeks later. They contend that churchgoers gathered in close quarters for their services, did not wear masks and did not report their illnesses.

Ms. Loan, her husband, Mr. Tan, and the couple’s son, daughter and son-in-law are all hospitalized with the virus.

“These days, in our hospital beds, we grieve both physically and mentally about what is going on,” Mr. Tan, 60, wrote in a Facebook post, in which he asked for forgiveness. “On behalf of the entire church, my wife and I, as pastors, would like to sincerely apologize to all the community.”

Reached at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City, where she is being treated, Ms. Loan, 65, contradicted the official account of her illness. She believes she contracted the virus after her return from Hanoi and was not the source of the cluster.

She also denied that parishioners gathered without wearing masks. She said the church had received a donation of 2,000 masks that she distributed to church members and neighbors.

“It is not true,” she said. “I am the one who always asked people from my church to wear a mask. I brought masks to all the people of the church and to people in the community.”

Ms. Loan and Mr. Tan founded the Revival Ekklesia Mission in the 1990s after the government dissolved the evangelical church where they had belonged. Theirs is one of many such small churches in Vietnam, which historically were harassed by the Communist government. But the authorities have gradually become more tolerant of religion, and the church received a government license in 2005.

The church is also their home. Before the pandemic, services attracted up to 50 people, Ms. Loan said.

The cluster at the church coincided with outbreaks elsewhere in Vietnam and the discovery of a dangerous new variant of the virus that combines traits of variants found earlier in India (recently renamed the “Delta” variant) and in Britain (now known as “Alpha”).

Officials say the variant found in Vietnam, which does not have a Greek letter appellation, becomes transmissible soon after infection and spreads easily through the air. Four cases of the variant have been identified through genetic sequencing, health officials said. They believe it is already widespread in the country and is partly to blame for the surge in cases. The current outbreak has now spread to at least 30 of Vietnam’s municipalities and provinces.

The new variant has not been detected in the church cluster. But five patients connected to the church were found to have the Delta variant, which itself is highly transmissible.

Larger clusters have been found in factories in two provinces in northern Vietnam where manufacturing for international companies is concentrated. Health officials said crowded, poorly ventilated workplaces contributed to the virus’s spread.

Perhaps because of the government’s past success in containing the virus, it has been slow to acquire vaccines. With a population of about 97 million people, Vietnam has administered just over one million doses so far, according to a New York Times database, one of the lowest rates in the world.

In recent weeks, officials have redoubled their efforts to procure vaccines and have called on businesses, organizations and the public to contribute ideas and money to speed up the process of importing them.

Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, said on Sunday that he had written a letter to President Biden praising his effort to make vaccines more available globally and proposing that the two countries strengthen cooperation in the research and production of Covid-19 vaccines, the local news media reported.

With the surge in infections, an attendant wave of fear has gripped the country, and the court of public opinion has weighed in to blame and criticize the pastors on social media. There, users accused the couple of “polluting” the community and operating an “infectious society.” Others called for Ms. Loan to be jailed.

Some in the community, however, said the government was making scapegoats of the couple when it should have done more to prevent the surge by curtailing travel in April, when infections began edging up.

“They are also just victims of the pandemic,” said Thuan Dang, 33, who was employed by a tour company until restrictions on the arrival of foreign tourists left him jobless last year.

The pastors’ daughter, Phuong Tuong Vi, said in a post on Facebook that the events had been traumatic and the insults hurtful. She said that church members always complied with the regulations and that health officials still have not pinpointed where the cluster originated. Even so, she said, her parents face the loss of the church that they built.

“At this very moment, the state has not found the source of the infection,” she said, “and we are both victims and criminals.”

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