Propaganda Poster drawn by Vietnamese artist Le Duc Hiep for the slogan:"Staying home is loving your country”.

How will COVID-19 change the future of development, and why?

The pandemic is exposing  the fallacy of economic models and it is creating the real possibility of setting back decades of development, generating massive cleavages in inequality while driving many vulnerable micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that provide work for the large majority of the world’s poor into extinction.  At the same time, driven by urgency and the immediate need to save lives at all costs, new innovations have burgeoned to address the global stock out of PPEs, speed social assistance to the most vulnerable with newly minted e-payment systems and build social cohesion to address the single most devastating pandemic of the century with a re-kindled solidarity.  As we grapple with COVID-19 and rapidly approach the 5-year milestone for the implementation of the SDG’s, a key question is: what are the right set of actions we need now to deliver a sustainable future for people and planet where No One is Left Behind?  

If there is one fundamental shift or change to development in the near future, it is that recovery from COVID-19 is likely to see societies and economies opening and contracting with the waves of the pandemic. In this undulating new world of ‘co-existing with COVID-19’ and the complexities and uncertainties that accompany it, nations will need to hone a set of capabilities that place a premium on Anticipating change, Adapting to the ‘new normal’ and responding with Agility using fast-tracked experimentation to generate and apply innovative solutions, or what we call ‘Triple AAA Governance’, as a matter not just of survival but to build forward the world we want in 2030.    

How can Viet Nam (and possibly the world) achieve that ambitious result?

Viet Nam’s rapid and effective containment of COVID-19 demonstrates significant agility – from the first recorded case on 23rd January to the current state of less than 300 cases, with the vast majority of those who contracted the virus recovered, zero deaths and one of the highest rates of testing per COVID-19 positive person in the world. Viet Nam is rightly being heralded by its citizens and the global community as one of the most promising responses at this time. Two key elements were central to achieving these results – the first was committed, timely, and decisive evidence-based leadership and enabling fast-tracked innovations across government, private sector and think tanks.  The second, less stressed but critically important element, involved harnessing the more intangible assets of solidarity, creativity and the engagement of citizens in the response. From these early actions, a few key lessons in Triple AAA Governance are emerging. 

Anticipating the spread of the virus very early on, the Government of Viet Nam took swift, decisive leadership action through contact tracing, isolation and quarantine measures to curtail the spread and limit community transmission. The national response plan for COVID-19 was issued on 20 January 2020, three days before the first two cases were recorded, with subsequent revisions on 31 January 2020 and 18 February 2020. One day after the first case was first recorded, the activation of the national Emergency Epidemic Prevention Centre was ordered. Epidemic declaration, border tightening, applying aviation permits, revocation and visa restrictions were swiftly announced. On 1 April, under the Directive No.16, Viet Nam adopted nationwide physical distancing rules for 15 days to suppress transmission, requiring all persons to stay at home except for essential and emergency outings. Meanwhile, factories, production and business facilities for essential goods were still allowed to operate. Assemblies of more than two people in public places were temporarily halted. From 16 to 22 April, these physical distancing rules were adjusted according to risk levels, and from 4 May schools started reopening. More detailed relaxation of the social distancing requirements were also delegated to local governments based on the local risk level.  Viet Nam is now relaxing restrictions and focusing on the task of re-booting the economy in the context of ‘Co-existing safely with COVID-19’, as stated by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam at the meeting of the National Steering Committee on COVID-19 on 17 April 2020.  

Central to this success was adopting a ‘whole of government’ approach, engaging key ministries at all levels and critically bringing the Ministry of Defense into the response. An apex National Steering Committee was established with high-level representation from 14 ministries and sectors. Similar arrangements were applied at the provincial level under the leadership of the Provincial People’s Committee. Based on the overall principle of prioritizing health care access for COVID-19 patients, at all costs, the Government has ensured free testing and treatment and provided support to those quarantined. The central budget covers the overall national response plan, including mandatory centralized quarantine, the cost of testing for all Vietnamese and foreign patients, and the cost of treatment for COVID-19 induced illness for all Vietnamese patients.  

Swift social protection support and fiscal stimulus packages were adopted by the Government in the early days of containment, using  fiscal, monetary and credit measures aimed  at conserving the country’s assets – its people and enterprises – by allowing enterprises to defer tax, social insurance and debt payments, to access reduced interest rates and to ensure liquidity and promote exports. Notably, the Government issued a $2.6 billion social protection package to provide cash support to the vulnerable people and workers that have lost their jobs and provided affected enterprises with credit at zero or low interest rates to pay workers’ salaries. The Government with the support of UNDP, is also accelerating the provision of e-services while encouraging enterprises and people to build resilience and embark on the transition to a global new normal of “co-existing safely with COVID-19”.  In many ways Viet Nam is well positioned for the new period it is entering. However, it remains to be seen if these stimulus packages will be sufficient to reboot the economy or whether further support and incentives are needed. 

A key and determining factor in Viet Nam’s response was adapting fast-tracked innovation for national production of globally stocked out essential medical equipment and protective gear. The Government made a key decision to fund national research institutions to rapidly develop test kits and provided swift approval for the application of the test kits by more than 40 labs across the country. This, together with the innovative partnership with domestic firms, has helped deliver the fastest-ever commercialization of R&D results in Viet Nam. The result: domestic firms were enabled to repurpose and produce cloth masks, surgical masks, test kits and ventilators in line with both quality and quantity standards  that were sufficient for meeting not just domestic needs but also the demand for export to countries experiencing shortages.  

Harnessing social capital and creativity and responding with agility: the Ministry of Health worked with artists, the private sector and the UN on what is now a hugely popular hand-washing song, “Ghencovy”, that is fun, educational and promotes safe practices for combating COVID-19 which has reached 45 million people nationally and over 3 million globally. The Government played an adaptive and agile role in: (i) promoting a “shared mission” of fighting COVID-19 as a common enemy, (ii) building national solidarity and (iii) encouraging innovations of Vietnamese people in the fight against COVID-19. ‘Rice ATMs’ provide free rice to people in need, and ‘zero VNDong supermarkets’ give away up to five items for free to people in need twice a week. These are two of many examples of innovative solutions generated by Vietnamese people working side by side of the Government to reduce the impacts of the pandemic on the country’s most vulnerable.     

Finally, building solidarity and social capital within ASEAN and globally has been another hallmark of the Government’s response and how it is adapting in dealing with a threat that recognizes no borders. Notably, the Government has demonstrated a high level of transparency in sharing the information about the pandemic with the public and the international community. As the chair of ASEAN, the Government initiated a call for ASEAN cooperation in combating COVID-19. At the 9 April 2020 meeting, ASEAN ministers endorsed the establishment of a COVID-19 ASEAN response fund and supported the sharing of information, as well as strategies and ways to ease the impact of the global health crisis on  the people and  economies of ASEAN countries. Viet Nam has demonstrated solidarity and is building good will by donating nationally produced PPEs (masks, test kits, ventilators) to ASEAN and other countries including China, several EU countries and the US.  Strengthening south-south and global cooperation to share best practice and speed innovations will continue to be essential to both the response to and recovery from COVID-19.  

What can we do as UNDP to help countries make it happen, in very concrete ways?

UNDP support in Viet Nam has been channeled in three main ways:  

Firstly, any efforts to leave no one behind as a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 is mounted must start with MSMEs which account for over 80% of jobs in Viet Nam and engage the overwhelming majority of vulnerable people.  UNDP plays a key role in strengthening the resilience of communities, in the first instance through rapid socio-economic impact assessments (conducted every two or three months) to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable people and the MSMEs that provide them critically needed livelihoods. This in turn helps inform government responses, refines and addresses gaps in reaching the most vulnerable households and MSMEs over the course of the recovery.  To speed delivery of social protection to those in urgent need, UNDP has been supporting Government to digitalize the management of fast track cash transfers to the most vulnerable. To help reboot local economies, UNDP is building on its work of empowering ethnic minority women’s micro-enterprises to adopt e-payment and e-commerce tools to extend market reach and household incomes.   These efforts are being adapted and scaled to enable safe workspaces, break the digital divide, and build resilient MSMEs that can compete not just in the time of COVID-19 but in the competitive fourth-industrial revolution world. 

Secondly, in building resilience in communities, UNDP plays an important role in supporting governments in strengthening health systems governance. Here UNDP Viet Nam has focused on: overcoming obstacles to national production and commercialization of essential medical equipment, developing smartphone applications for managing PPE supply chains, and facilitating the adoption of new technologies such as healthcare robots and Artificial Intelligence-assisted screening tools to help protect front-line health workers.  Safe waste management in the context of COVID-19, from hospital waste to ensuring safe working spaces for waste collectors is another area of work we are addressing.  

Thirdly, UNDP is working to develop the capacities of the Government to address complex development challenges and navigate new strategic risks in the current era of radical uncertainty. COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for rethinking how we do development, which requires new sets of competencies that move away from single point solutions to understanding systems change. 

UNDP is well positioned with the 60 Accelerator Labs around the world to deliver on these key capabilities which are already being institutionalized in the organization and in governments.  In Viet Nam, UNDP has been driving forward the concepts of Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive Triple AAA governance to support the Government in identifying changing landscapes and developing capacities in systemic thinking and inter-organizational cooperation to mobilize ecosystems for addressing complex development challenges. Furthermore, UNDP Viet Nam has been promoting both cultural and structural shifts, as well as institutional innovation that supports experimentation and accelerates learning. Innovation and experimentation were instrumental in the COVID-19 response in Viet Nam and multiple solutions such as the rice ATMs, zero VND supermarkets, as well as masks and test-kits were identified and subsequently scaled up to create systemic impact at both local and national levels.  

What one lesson or experience do you wish to share related to the above?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore fundamental flaws in our current socio-economic systems forcing us to reassess our current development trajectories, rethink the role of the State and re-design the support of UNDP. It has highlighted the need for building more resilient systems underpinned by a new set of key capabilities for managing complexity, and navigating radical uncertainty as we prepare for future successive waves of the pandemic.   Successful containment of COVID-19 and future shocks requires enhanced capacity for strategic foresight and swift, adaptive, and agile actions from governments and societies, and from UNDP as well. UNDP Viet Nam’s promotion of Triple AAA governance, the ‘entrepreneurial role’ of the state and inclusive innovations that began long before the outbreak of COVID-19 underscored the importance of fast-tracked innovation and adaptive, agile, government that has contributed to Viet Nam’s success in containing the virus. Capturing what Viet Nam ‘got right’ in the response and what should be carried forward in the recovery will be essential. Deeper development of these new capabilities and capacities of government will be vital, not only for rebooting the economy in a ‘Co-existing with COVID-19’ context but for re-designing future resilient pathways to our 2030 Goals.   

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