Diane Lee - An expat in the time of coronavirus

An Expat in the Time of Coronavirus

An expat tells why being a foreigner in a foreign land wasn’t a good thing in the midst of a global pandemic

I’ve been based in Hanoi, Vietnam for almost four years, and as an expat, I’ve neither seen nor experienced anything like the xenophobia among the local Vietnamese — towards foreigners — that has occurred as a result of the coronavirus. For one week at the beginning of March, the vibe was really, really weird.

The Vietnamese government has been proactive and sensible in its approach, closing borders and schools, enforcing strict quarantine regulations to control outbreaks, encouraging the cancellation of events and sending regular public service announcements by text, which are not, unfortunately, translated into English.

Hospitals offered free health care for patients testing positive (only for local Vietnamese — foreigners had to pay), and there is a requirement for Vietnamese and foreigners to complete a health declaration via smart phone apps. A popular neighbourhood has been locked down. Perfectly reasonable under the circumstances.

It was all quite calm, measured and controlled, so I don’t understand how this has failed to filter through to the average Vietnamese on the street.

Except I do.

There was a moral panic sweeping through the streets of Hanoi, and woe betide any foreigner who was caught not wearing a mask, despite the fact that many Vietnamese weren’t wearing them. Foreigners were berated and yelled at and shamed for not “taking care of the community”. This happened on the street, and online in Facebook Groups.

And in a high context culture like Vietnam, where the individual’s needs are pushed aside for the greater good, it makes sense, even with differing opinions about the effectiveness of aforementioned masks. Hell, the Vietnamese government even said in official text messages at the beginning of the pandemic that it’s not necessary unless someone is sick or working in the medical profession, tending the sick.

But the 24/7 news cycle didn’t help. It was driving a moral panic that was fed by the fear of the unknown. Emotionally laden language that tells us we are all doomed and to expect the apocalypse tomorrow is unhelpful. It’s not news. It’s fear mongering. If it bleeds, it leads.

Interestingly, as soon as the soft lock down ended, things in Hanoi were back to normal. Not a new shitty normal, but the old normal that I like so much in this city: friendly locals, great food, the hustle and bustle of a vibrant anything goes kind of city.

If you want to read more about what life was like in Hanoi during this “unprecedented” time, head over to my personal blog and read all about it.

Image by zibik from Pixabay 

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