Vietnam pulls out the stops to save ‘Patient 91’

Among Vietnam’s modest cohort of coronavirus cases, one is commanding almost all the attention from media, medical doctors and ordinary Vietnamese: an unnamed 43-year-old British pilot known as Patient 91. 

The man was diagnosed on March 18 in Ho Chi Minh City and admitted to hospital. More than two months later, he is on life support and Vietnamese doctors are taking extraordinary measures to keep him alive, including vetting donors for a lung transplant. 

Saving Patient 91 has become a priority for Vietnam’s communist government and medical establishment, which are basking in approval at home and abroad for their apparently successful fight against Covid-19. 

The south-east Asian country, with a population of 97m, responded early and aggressively to the pandemic, and has reported 324 cases of coronavirus and no deaths.

Vietnam appears eager to maintain its record of no fatalities and, with such a low caseload, can afford to treat foreigners with the disease. 

“As Vietnam’s low number of infected people and zero deaths became an international rarity, people have developed a sense of national pride attached to it,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu.

“And the government was more aware of it as an opportunity to boost their legitimacy both with the domestic and the international audience.” 

State-controlled media have been following the British patient’s progress closely. Medical officials have shared details of his condition and whereabouts, and the media have reported information on his height, weight and residence before he was hospitalised for Covid-19. 

The British embassy in Hanoi declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality. Health officials in Ho Chi Minh City contacted by the Financial Times also declined to comment.

Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Health has told Vietnamese media that the man was part of a cluster of infections traced to the Buddha Bar and Grill, a nightspot in Vietnam’s largest city that has since been closed. Thirteen other people who were there with the airline pilot on March 14 have tested positive. 

Medical officials say the man remains on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, a form of life support used for patients with severely compromised lungs. His condition has improved in recent days and Vietnamese media reported this week that he had regained capacity in 20-30 per cent of his lungs, up from 10 per cent. 

At least 60 people of different ages and professions, including doctors and nurses, journalists and soldiers, have stepped forward with offers of partial lung transplants. Doctors are looking for a suitable donor for a full transplant, who has to be both registered to donate and brain-dead. 

Vietnam, which shares a long border with China, began preparing its coronavirus response in January, before any cases were confirmed. In its fight against Covid-19, the country has benefited from a relatively young population and experience in mobilising its citizens against military and other threats. 

Hanoi was quick to ground international travel — starting with flights to and from China — and closely traced infected people’s contacts, with the help of the ubiquitous state security apparatus.

Authorities have since then increased testing and quarantined more than 253,000 people, more than 88,000 of whom were housed at centralised facilities, according to the country’s foreign ministry. 

Editor’s note

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It has now been more than a month since Vietnam reported its last local coronavirus infection, although some infected people have arrived from the US, Russia and elsewhere on repatriation flights. 

Domestic travel has resumed, schools and workplaces have reopened, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is now reportedly preparing to declare the pandemic “over” in Vietnam.

The country’s vanquishing of the pandemic has brought with it an outburst of patriotic and nationalist sentiment in Vietnam, which coincides with the ruling communist party’s upcoming reshuffle of national leadership at a congress early next year.

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