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Tuesday, 24 August 2021 09:42
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Vietnam’s political culture in response to the Covid-19 pandemic

(LLCT) - The Covid-19 pandemic has generated heavy losses in life and economy as well as political and social stability on a global scale. In the fight against the pandemic, in spite of numerous disadvantages, Vietnam has achieved many internationally recognized positive results. Together with other factors that have brought about those initial successes, political culture is a particularly important and significant cause, strongly influencing the consciousness and behavior of the people and the government in the pandemic prevention and combat. The analysis of four dimensions of political culture including individualism ands collectivism, power gap, degree of uncertainty avoidance, determination and flexibility has revealed cultural and political characteristics of Vietnam, contributing to the explanation of the pandemic prevention and combat results in Vietnam in the recent time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health disaster that has affected 215 countries and territories around the world(1). That the number of infections and deaths increases dramatically each day damages the development of the global economy and is a source of socio-political conflicts in many countries. The pandemic is both a test for the capacity of the political system and the people, through which cultural and political features are revealed with values that have been molded throughout the political history of the nation.

The fight against the Covid-19 placed Vietnam at a disadvantaged place right from the start: Vietnam has a long border with China where the pandemic started; the outbreak of the disease happened right at the time when there was a high need for travelling between the two countries that shared the tradition of celebrating the Lunar New Year; meanwhile, Vietnam’s health resources are still limited and the top leadership positions of the Ministry of Health were vacant then(2). However, so far, Vietnam is one of the countries with low rates of infection and mortality from the pandemic(3). Vietnamese cultural and political values play an important role in the country’s initial achievements.

1. Political culture and its dimensions

There are many different views on political culture, but it is mainly approached in two directions: behavioral approach and value approach.

The behavioral approach is typically embodied in the concept of Almond and Verba in their work The Civic Culture. Accordingly, there are three types of political culture: parochial, subject, and participant.

In the value approach, political culture is understood as the values shared by individuals in a community in the process of participating in political life. “Political culture as the composite of basic values, feelings, and knowledge that underlie the political process(4) (Lucian Pye). Accordingly, political culture is not simply attitudes and beliefs but core values that are instilled in the process of organizing the coexistence of a community, or a country. It is shaped through the learning process of society and participates in the direction of political behavior of each citizen.

Each approach emphasizes a different element of political culture structure, but political culture is understood as values expressed through the political behavior of the people and the state of power in reciprocal relationship in dealing with common problems of the community in each country. After all, politics is the process of organizing how people in a society live together. The process that takes place throughout the political history of a people will be molded and created values that are expressed in political acts through different political cultural dimensions. As a hidden factor, political culture is difficult to identify under normal conditions, but through events of the country, or events affecting the general safety of the community, the main character of the political culture is revealed and plays its role.

Each country has its own political culture features which in order to be identified require its specific dimensions to be researched and levels to be emphasized. All of the recent typical political culture studies have used dimensions to define the political cultural characteristics of a country. Accordingly, the dimensions such as monumentism, collectivism, consensus, cooperation, and uncertainty avoidance are mentioned by Inglehart and Schwartz(5) which were based on Geert Hofstede’s work(6).

In this article, in order to highlight the cultural and political characteristics of Vietnam in the prevention and combat against the Covid-19 pandemic, political culture is considered in four dimensions: individualism and collectivism; power gap; uncertainty avoidance; determination and flexibility.

The first dimension, individualism and collectivism, means that, within a community or an organization, individualistic values are shaped. They can be prone to individualism with individual independence and greater degree of laxity in community links; or prone to collectivism with emphasis on community cohesion and shared responsibility.

The second dimension, power gap refers to the hierarchical distance created by power. It is the power gap between the State and the people or between the entities of State power. Big or small power gaps affect political relations differently and effectiveness in policy implementation.

The third dimension, uncertainty avoidance degree refers to the high and low levels of response to unexpected situations, which are uncommon and difficult to predict.

The fourth dimension, determination and flexibility refer a nation’s political culture tendency to be determined, tough or flexible in fulfilling a political task.

2. The dimensions of Vietnamese political culture manifested in response to the Covid-19 pandemic

(i) Individualism and collectivism

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Vietnam up to now, Vietnam has undergone two waves(7) through which people nationwide abided by the government’s regulations and warnings with a high consensus, solidarity and determination to fight the pandemic on a war footing.

Wearing a mask is a requirement to protect individuals from disease, it is also the responsibility of each member to the community. With this regulation in Vietnam, almost all people strictly abide by the early stages of the fight against the pandemic. In addition to wearing masks to protect themselves and the community, many individuals and organizations have delivered free masks for everyone in public places to enhance the community’s anti-pandemic resistance. During the anti-pandemic peak, concerned about the scarce supply of masks, and in order to save resources for the State, many people volunteered to give their medical masks to the medical staff and only use fabric masks which can be reused. An almost immediate response from the people to a situation affecting the community, as well as a high spirit of cooperation to government recommendations are manifestations of collective spirit and communitarianism. It cannot be a random manifestation, but the result of the embodiment throughout the national political process.

Unlike collectivism, individualism attaches great importance to individual freedom, individual right to respond to situations affecting the safety of the whole community, specifically, the medical recommendations for pandemicprevention. At a time when the pandemic broke out and spread, people in many countries around the world had indifferent attitudes to wearing masks. It was stigmatized as a symbol of disease which was repelled. Those wearing masks were even attacked. Therefore, even at the time of an outbreak, wearing masks in many countries, especially Western ones, was still at the discretion of each individual.

It was not only the awareness of protecting oneself and the community, Vietnam also witnessed the voluntary mobilization of social resources to share with the State’s responsibilities in the common mission of preventing and combating the pandemic. That 100-year-old Vietnamese Heroic Mother - Dam Thi Bay (village 1, Hong Ky commune) provided an aid of 1 million VND for the Covid-19 pandemic prevention in Hong Ky commune(8). Together with many other ordinary people’s noble gestures. her act has created the power to spread human love and the spirit of solidarity for the entire people in the difficult times. The idea of “0 VND Supermarket”(9); or the initiative of “Rice ATM”(10) helped hundreds of poor households affected during the pandemic’s peak last year. They at the same time expressed deeply the tradition of “the intact leaves protect tattered ones”, and the spirit of solidarity of the Vietnamese people. Many individuals, agencies, organizations and enterprises have carried out many volunteer activities, donated money, medical equipment and also worked with the medical teams to treat patients infected with Covid-19. This social capital has been promptly mobilized and created a great impetus for the anti-pandemic work materially and spiritually, making the anti-pandemic “war” a “national war” with the spirit of solidarity for the whole country.

It can be seen that this is not an expression of the general culture but the political cultural values of the nation that are revealed when there is a political situation that requires strong social capital mobilization. It is the crystallization of the common sense of the origin, the mode of uniting the community (house - village - country) and the way of survival in controlling floods together and fighting against foreign invaders since the historic time.

(ii) Power gap

The power gap between the State and the people:

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam - Head of the Steering Committee, with his dedication, simplicity and close devotion, has won over the hearts of all social strata; leaders of the localities having patients infected with Covid-19 regularly organize visits and encourage patients and their families; representatives of residential groups together with the people organize cleaning and disinfection in residential areas; hosted soldiers give rooms and daily items to the isolated people in the military barracks, etc. All are manifestations of the close connection between the State as a powerful subject and the people; between the Party leadership and the army and people. The low power gap is expressed in the affectionate bond between the army and the people, the harmony of the Party’s will and people’s heart. It forms a united bloc and synergy in the fight against the pandemic, highlighting Vietnamese political culture in this dimension.

The power gap between subjects of power:

The Steering Committees for pandemic prevention at provincial and district levels with very specific tasks have realized the instructions from the Central Steering Committee, at the same time carried out the direction of functional forces at grassroots level. In addition to communication and reminders, the grassroots functional forces have set up pandemic control posts to strongly support the frontline to fight against the pandemic. The military force, under the leadership of the Party at all levels, is mobilized to undertake the tasks of transporting people to isolated locations; providing services in quarantined areas and strictly monitoring borders with neighboring countries. The close coordination between governments of different levels shows a high unity in leadership and direction of the entire political system.

It can be said that the low power gap is a prominent expression of Vietnamese political culture that has been shaped from history up to now, stemming from the tradition of controlling floods and fighting against foreign invaders, which required unanimity and joint action of the individuals and the community, the people and the State. In the modern time, the characteristics of the Vietnamese institutional model show that power is centralized and unified under the leadership of the Party. This shows the close cohesion between governments of different levels and the high consistency in the wills and actions of the political system. This power gap has created cultural and political values with respects for hierarchy and obedience to power, and effective cohesion and coordination between governments of different levels and between local governments with people in the process of achieving shared goals. This makes it easy to mobilize resources, avoiding the fragmentation in the organization and implementation, and bringing about real results.

(iii) Degree of uncertainty avoidance

Vietnam has experienced many political disruptions in history, with the ups and downs of feudal dynasties, with invasions from China and the West. Therefore, the uncertainty avoidance is always present and becomes a typical dimension of Vietnamese political culture. In special eventful political situations which directly affect the general safety of the community, and in unpredictable realities, this dimension is evident.

It can be said that phase 2 of the first pandemic wave (at the confirmation of case No. 17) was a time when the concern about the pandemic was heightened. In addition to potential worries, there was also concerns about food security, health security, and beyond that, life security. It is the consciousness of the uncertainty – the fear for being unable to control the pandemic once it breaks out that contributes to people’s high awareness of pandemic prevention and control. However, the uncertainty avoidance also leads to another extreme when people are too worried about the safety of essential needs, leading to their storing food, or panic when someone in the residential area is infected. This shows that a high degree of uncertainty avoidance is a characteristic of Vietnamese political culture and its impacts are two sided.

(iv) Determination and flexibility

The recent fight against Covid-19 in Vietnam has witnessed a series of timely and effective decisions made following the developments of the pandemic(11). It is the result of careful calculations and a combination of resolute, flexible, drastic but flexible measures taken by governments of all levels.

The determination to fight the pandemic is shown in tracing F0, thoroughly quarantining people from the pandemic affected area, isolating an entire commune, a street or even a national general hospital (Bach Mai Hospital), even a tourist city (Da Nang) when there are many cases of infection in the community. At the height of the anti-pandemic phase of the first wave, the Prime Minister issued Directive 16 / CT-TTg (March 31, 2020) on implementing social distancing within 15 days. When the second pandemic wave hit Da Nang, a destination with various tourists from many provinces, the Steering Committee quickly quarantined and quickly tested thousands of people returning from Da Nang. For those violating quarantine regulations, avoiding social distancing, opposing pandemic prevention regulations or distorting the truth about the pandemic situation, maybe subjected to strict punishments, from administrative penalties to imprisonment. In short, it can be seen that the Government of Vietnam has been decisive in the prevention and combat against the pandemic, and assertive in leading, directing and accepting certain economic sacrifices to protect the safety of the people at the time the number of infected cases increased.

Together with its determination to prevent the pandemic, the Government of Vietnam consistently shows its flexibility in its direction work in both pandemic waves and other phases. In the first phase of the first wave, the risk of external infections was high, the number of infections in many other countries of the world was low while governments and people of many countries had not taken drastic action to prevent the pandemic. All of this required the prevention of pandemic from the outside to be flexible - preventing the pandemic while maintaining economic development, trade and foreign affairs. In the process of quarantining people from pandemic affected zones and vulnerable areas, the Government of Vietnam provided free services in quarantine areas to create the strongest incentive for people to comply with regulations. For a country with a difficult economy of limited budget, this option was chosen and worked as an optimal, effective low-cost approach. In the second wave in mid-July 2020, the Prime Minister issued guidance on the flexible application of Directive 16 on social distancing and Directive 19 on continued implementation of preventive measures and the fight against Covid-19 pandemic in the new situation(12), depending on circumstances, different localities have deployed different approaches to combat the pandemic(13). This shows the government’s proactive improvisation between the two waves, aiming to both preventing the pandemic and maintaining economic recovery in each locality in particular and the country in general.

In terms of foreign affairs, the Government of Vietnam promptly notified the governments of countries with infected cases when their respective citizens returned to and from Vietnam, and simultaneously telephoned other countries to coordinate to deal with the pandemic. The successful treatment of the British pilot has become a symbol of Vietnam’s anti-pandemic efforts, while at the same time enhancing Vietnam’s reputation for its international support and humanity.

3. A few implications

Firstly, collectivism is an outstanding feature, but it is only really promoted when each citizen sees the common interests of the community and nation. Especially, when the government’s efforts in all decisions and actions are for the benefit and safety of the people, collectivism or communitarianism is motivated and creates the power of great unity in the entire nation. Thereby, the government also receives great support from the people, materially and spiritually.

Secondly, the low power gap has contributed to a close coordination between governments of different levels; the leadership’s conscientiousness for the common good and mutual trust between the State and the people are factors that contribute to major changes in the performance of the entire political system.

Thirdly, the high level of people’s uncertainty avoidance will be a hindrance to pandemic prevention if people do not trust the government, leading to panic and socio-political instability. However, if attached to the trust in the leadership of the Party and the management capacity of the government for the benefit of the people, it will contribute to create confidence and determination and good observance of regulations from the people.

Fourthly, determination and flexibility, if combined flexibly, suitably for each situation and based on the legitimate interests of the people, will always bring the operational efficiency of the political system both internally and externally That determination is different from imposed autocracy and flexibility is not a compromise is a valuable lesson that our Party has acquired in the political history of Vietnam up to now.

 

Endnotes:

(1) See updated data at https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus.

(2) Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien stepped down in November 2019. Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam was assigned to be in charge of and directed the health sector and the entire population during the anti-pandemic combat.

(3) Vietnam has 1,040 cases, 309 people are being treated, 695 people have been cured and the number of deaths is 33. Cited from the Ministry of Health, Statistics on pandemic situation Covid-19, https://ncov.moh.gov.vn, accessed on August 31, 2020.

(4) Institute of Political Science: Politics of theoretical and practical issues, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2012, p.145

(5) Inglehart (1988), The Renaissance of Political Culture, American Political Science Review, 82 (December 1988), 1203-30; Schwartz, SH (2006), A theory of cultural value orientations: Explication and applications, Comparative Sociology, 5 (2/3), 137-182.

(6) Geert Hofstede et al, Culture and Organizations, New York: Hill, (1997).

(7) The first pandemic wave is from January 2020 to April 2020. It is divided into 3 phases: Phase 1, on January 23, 2020, Vietnam recorded the first case of Covid-19 infection, the patient returned from the pandemic affected area. Phase 1 finished with more than 16 positive cases cured. Phase 2 started when the 17th patient was identified, many streets and residential areas in the center of the capital were blocked. Phase 3 recorded cases in the community and F0 track loss, the Prime Minister made a decision on social distancing within 15 days.

The second wave started in mid-July 2020 with cases detected in Da Nang and F0 track was lost, ending 99 days without cases of infection in the community. This was the time when tourist traffic was high, causing the pandemic to spread to provinces.

(8) http://www.hanoimoi.com.vn/tin-tuc/Xa-hoi/964253/ba-me-viet-nam-anh-hung-100-tuoi-ung-ho-tien-chong-dich -Covid-19.

(9)https://tuoitre.vn/sieu-thi-gia-0-dong-cho-nguoi-ngheo-20200414085458717.htm.

(10) http://dangcongsan.vn/xa-hoi/lan-toa-mo-hinh-atm-gao-cho-nguoi-ngheo-553120.html.

(11) Decisions made during the past anti-pandemic combat:

- On January 29, 2020, the Party Central Committee issued Official Letter No. 79 / CV-TW on prevention and control of acute respiratory infections caused by corona virus;

- On January 30, 2020, the Prime Minister signed Decision No. 170 / QD-TTg on the establishment of the National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control, led by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam as the Head of the Steering Committee;

- On 1 February 2020, the Prime Minister signed Decision 173 / QD-TTg announcing the Covid-19 pandemic;

- On March 18, 2020, the Prime Minister issued a decision to stop issuing visas to foreigners entering Vietnam, restricting flights from the affected area;

- On March 27, 2020, the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 15 / CT-TTg on climax stage of Covid-19 control effort;

- On March 30, 2020, General Secretary and President Nguyen PhuTrong appealed to compatriots, comrades, soldiers nationwide and overseas Vietnamese people to stay united in their will and actions, to repel the Covid-19 pandemic;

- On March 31, 2020, the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 16 / CT-TTg on implementing social distancingmeasures within 15 days;

- On April 24, 2020, the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 19 / CT-TTg on loosening restrictions, gradually restoring socio-economic activities, moving to a long-term anti-pandemic stage.

(12)https://moh.gov.vn/hoat-dong-cua-lanh-dao-bo/-/asset_publisher/TW6LTp1ZtwaN/content/huong-dan-thuc-hien-chi-thi-16-ct-ttg -ve-cach-ly-xa-hoi.

 

(13) https://ncov.moh.gov.vn/web/guest/-/thu-tuong-tuy-hoan-canh-cu-the-cac-dia-phuong-ap-dung-chi-thi-19 -hoac-16-voi-o-dich-Covid-19.

Phd Candidate Nguyen Thi Hong Minh

Institute of Political Science,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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