The rooftop of an apartment block in central Hanoi seems like an odd space to host a marathon. But when Vietnam imposed aggressive restrictions on outdoor movement in response to the coronavirus, athlete Nguyên Tiên Dat was forced to adjust his track to the strict bounds of state-sanctioned exercise. Last month, Dat became Vietnam’s first runner to complete a marathon by looping the 25-meter length of his rooftop terrace. Logging the 860 laps on Strava, a mobile app for tracking runs, Dat’s message to his Strava followers was to stay active — and stay at home.
Millions of Vietnamese citizens like Dat have made preventing the spread of Covid-19 a priority. It’s the result of a sweeping public education campaign that relied heavily on social media and state-controlled news to instill a sense of civic duty in combating the coronavirus. Vietnam’s response has been an underreported success: The communist country has logged 326 cases of Covid-19 and zero deaths, and experts say there is no evidence to suggest a systematic cover-up.
Other countries in the region have deployed high-tech interventions. Taiwan provides real-time, location-specific data to the public on face mask availability through a government API. The Chinese government uses facial recognition, geotagging, and thermal scanners to track infected individuals. Meanwhile, a close look at Vietnam’s response reveals a resourceful — and often troubling — mix of high-tech and low-tech measures. They illustrate how mass data collection can be deployed to contain a disease — and how it can go wrong.
One of the most effective tools Vietnam used to manage the spread of the coronavirus was public education, often deployed via popular social media channels.
In February, for example, Vietnam’s health ministry released the viral hand-washing song “Ghen Co Vy.” The song, which likens the virus to a jealous (“ghen”) opponent, spread preventative advice to millions. Dancer and choreographer Quang Đăng of Ho Chi Minh City used the song to create the #GhenCoVyChallenge video on TikTok, which…