In the face of covid, Wales must be bolder. It must be radical. It must show the resistance it has for centuries in keeping the country alive, er gwaetha pawb a phopeth. If it does, a great moment can be won:
Wales can become the first Western nation to be covid-free.
It is possible. Wales can take the initiative and stop the spread of covid and return to normal life before a vaccine is available. Many other countries – my current home of Vietnam especially – have already proven it can be done.
Wales is currently in its second national lockdown, a ‘fire break’ designed as a temporary break in the virus’ spread. My friends and family fear it will not be the last such lockdown. They are right.
As long as the virus is in the community, the winter ahead will be hard. And lockdowns in December and January will be a lot harder to bear than during the summer. It is no wonder that, with no end in sight, people’s morale is fraying.
The Welsh Government can, however, give the people of Wales a goal: a return to normality on their terms – not those of the drug companies. If they can do so, the people of Wales will endure lockdowns with determination rather than dread.
It can be done. I have seen it first-hand.
Valleys v Vietnam
I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) for the past 6 years. It’s an incredible place, laced with energy, opportunity, and a great many imperfections. More than 10 million people live within its 2000 squared kilometres: 3+ times the population of Wales, in a space one-tenth of its landmass.
Perfect conditions, surely, for a virus to take hold?
And yet covid has not taken hold. There have been 1148 recorded cases nationwide since January. 35 recorded deaths (half as many as Wales has endured just in the past week). Zero community transmission in 50 days. All this despite a long, porous border with China and a health infrastructure reflective of a developing nation.
Consider that total again: 1148. My native Rhondda and RCT has as a whole seen 5000 cases, give or take.
Success in Vietnam, and the region, has been deeply misunderstood: treated as a curio of Eastern culture, a byproduct of authoritarianism. These in turn have become reasons, in the minds of many in politics and media, as to why it cannot happen in the West. Those objections are misleading.
With a combination of clear intent; combined action; and transparent communication, Wales too could become Covid-free by the end of the year.
‘Transparent communication’ may be a surprise. Vietnam is a single-party state, and that party firmly controls broadcast and print media.
But on Covid, nothing has been held back. Every telecoms channel has been used to reach the right people as needed. Apps and social media are in use, but old school methods are equally employed.
When a confirmed case passes through my building, notices go up in the lift, documenting when and for how long the patient visited. Newspapers list the movements of those with positive tests (anonymously, as patient numbers). Text messages reach people who don’t have the latest mobile OS.
This way, positive cases aren’t just abstract statistics in a TV briefing or on a data dashboard – they are human narratives which intersect directly with yours. Low-tech methods ensure those outside the digital bubble hear the details, not just the headline figures.
Test and trace in Wales is doing well – unsurprisingly, as it has made excellent use of its local authorities. But it engages only known contacts.
Offering ward-level, regional and national updates on cases, not just the numbers, alerts the entire community – and keeps everyone feeling involved in the fight.
Once informed, those isolating must be supported.
Wales is in a better position to do so than Vietnam. It can offer financial support to those isolating. But beyond that, it must help them get supplies and their everyday needs met.
Here, when an individual – sometimes a whole apartment block – are locked down, food deliveries are organized so they don’t need to leave. Tests are brought to the symptomatic, and carried out by officials or medical staff in comprehensive PPE. Contaminated public spaces and working environments are professionally cleaned by the authorities before being signed-off to reopen.
The few that have been granted access to Vietnam from abroad must quarantine. With few tourists, many hotels are empty – so visitors are accommodated in these to achieve genuine isolation.
Wales currently has a problem of compliance with isolation orders. But when people have to go out to get food, worry about losing their job – added in to the fact it may not be their first or last time to isolate – it’s hardly surprising.
Give people more support, and they will comply more readily. Particularly if there is a clear end point in sight.
“Fight the virus like we’d fight the enemy…aiming for a total victory”.
That has been the State’s mantra here in Vietnam. It spoke to the intent of stopping community spread, and to this nation’s famous capacity for attritional resistance in tough times. It gave a rationale to endure the hardships ahead: an end point; a win condition.
Wales’s ‘win condition’ seems to be to wait for a vaccine. An unfinished, untested drug. Were it available by mid-2021, that would make 18 months since the task began. And frankly, it would be a miracle if the vaccine was available so soon.
Today, the only goals expressed by the Welsh Government thus far have been to “protect the NHS” and “regain control of the virus”. The first, a vital stop-gap, not a goal. The second, a myth while covid circulates in the community.
Neither give any confidence further lockdowns won’t be needed. And without that confidence, patience will wear out, the downsides become harder to bear, and compliance will collapse.
Wales needs a ‘win condition’ to make the dark days of lockdown feel like an investment, not a waste.
The win condition must be a covid-free Wales.
It may take a 4-week lockdown (“invest a month to save the year”). But if led, and supported, Wales is small, smart and stubborn enough to get it done – and ahead of the rest.
What is the alternative? An indefinite wait for a vaccine? A cycle of ‘fire breaks’ that never quite dampen the flames – while never allowing life to be lived fully and freely?
Or, worse still – the deadly, foolish pursuit of ‘herd immunity’?
Vietnam took swift and complete action early. Today, the country is back to business as usual. The economy will be one of the few to grow at all this year. The 8-lane highway outside my window throbs to the beat of daily life. Personally, business is booming, with clients confidently able to make plans for next year.
Yes, Vietnam and Wales are different. Populations, systems of government, incomes and more are at opposite ends of spectrum. But the Welsh Government has the same toolkit available – lockdowns, contact tracing, targeted testing – plus the means to financially support those affected.
That toolkit is being used now in Wales to tread water while waiting for a miracle drug. Instead, Wales can and must use that toolkit to accomplish a greater goal – covid-free status.
It would take the whole of society working together. But in sight of a common goal, it can be done.
Ryan Thomas lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is a native of the Rhondda and is politically independent.