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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Tens of thousands of Vietnamese who once made their living in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s COVID-19 epicenter, are returning to their own provinces in despair after authorities lifted a strict stay-at-home order last week, raising fears that the highly contagious Delta variant could spread in parts of the country where vaccination rates remain low.
The mass exodus, which began Friday, has led local officials in the Mekong Delta region and the Central Highlands to rush to locate and quarantine the returnees, many of whom desperately wanted to return home after months of closure without work or sufficient food in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding provinces.
So far, at least 200 positive cases have been found among the 160,000 people who have returned to their home province, according to the report. Sing News, a Vietnamese news website.
“The sea of people returning home at this time is extremely difficult for our province,” said Nguyen Than Binh, a local official in Mekong Delta province of An Giang.
“For the past three days, we have worked non-stop to receive, screen, test and provide food and shelter to people,” he said on Tuesday. “People ride their motorcycles all day and night and it’s raining, so the officers on duty have to buy raincoats for everyone. We also provide dumplings, bread and drinking water to satisfy their hunger and thirst.”
Of the 30,000 people who arrived in An Giang by motorbike, only half have been tested so far, he said. About 44 tests came back positive.
The influx of people has so overwhelmed local authorities’ ability to screen returnees for COVID-19 that at least two provinces in the Mekong Delta region – Soc Trang and Hau Giang – have asked the central government to exit Ho Chi Minh city and its surrounding regions.
The province of Ca Mau, fearing an increase in the number of cases, on Monday suspended its plans to loosen the COVID-19 ties and told residents to only go outside when necessary.
‘We are afraid to die here’
It shouldn’t have been.
When authorities in Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding provinces of Long An, Binh Duong and Dong Nai — Vietnam’s economic powerhouse and home to some 3.5 million migrant workers — lifted the stay-at-home rule, they stopped traveling between provinces.
But after months of lockdown, the final weeks when people weren’t even allowed to go out to eat, many migrant workers desperately wanted to return to their homes.
When the stay-at-home came to an end on Friday, scenes of desperation played out at Ho Chi Minh City’s checkpoints. A video from that day showed migrant workers on their knees offering incense to security forces in the usual way Vietnamese pray to their ancestors, begging the soldiers to let them leave the city.
“You’re afraid your boss will scold you for letting us go, but we’re afraid to die here,” you heard one woman say.
At another checkpoint on the southwestern outskirts of the city in Binh Chanh district, thousands of people on motorbikes early Friday morning packed together, and children slept on the side of the road waiting to be let through.
“I haven’t had anything to eat, and lately I’ve only been eating instant noodles,” said Lang Thi Thanh, one of the men waiting at the checkpoint. told a local film crew in Vietnamese. “I worked as a bricklayer and lost my job for four months. I had no money for food at all.”
Another woman, Tran Thi Thanh, said she no longer knew how to survive in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I still owe 40 million Vietnamese Dong [$1,762] and I have no money to buy food. “Tell me how can I stay?” All I want now is to go home,” she said.
As dawn approached and security forces refused to let the workers through, clashes broke out and people knocked down the barricades that prevented them from leaving the city.
“They broke the barrier between Ho Chi Minh City and Long An Province to go home after four months of hunger here,” Nguyen Thao, a 32-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City, told Al Jazeera. “This is the first time I see something like this. People wouldn’t be so aggressive if they weren’t pushed to the edge of life…I think right now they have to break the rule to survive.”
Similar scenes also took place on Saturday in neighboring Bin Duong province, where a video showed crowds in a standoff with police in riot gear.
Long journey home
Amid the chaos, authorities in Ho Chi Minh City changed course and let people leave, but said returnees should be tested and quarantined upon their return home. While continuing to urge people not to leave “unsupervised”, authorities arranged 113 buses on Saturday to take 8,000 migrants home. Police in neighboring Dong Nai province escorted 14,000 people on motorcycles from the region on Tuesday.
However, tens of thousands of others have returned without official supervision.
Images posted to local media on Sunday show exhausted travelers resting on piles of rocks and on the ground while waiting to be processed at an isolation facility in the mountainous province of Dak Lak. Other Pictures from Tuesday, tens of people show thousands of kilometers through the rain with their luggage tied to their motorcycle.
Some even tried to travel home on foot.
Yeah TV, a local television channel, published a image on Facebook on Sunday of a man walking along a highway while pushing a stroller with his two small children. The channel said the man had started in Dong Nai and would walk 39 hours to his home in Tra Vinh province.
Analysts and charities are blaming the Vietnamese government for the chaos.
They say authorities have failed to provide adequate assistance to migrant workers in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding regions during the months-long restrictions, which began in late June and scaled up to an almost complete ban on leaving homes on August 23.
Some 130,000 troops were sent to the city to enforce the ban, and more than 300 barricades – some with barbed wire – were set up to prevent people from moving between districts.
“Government support was too little. It was never enough,” Ha Hoang Hop, a senior fellow in the Vietnamese Studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera. “[They left] because they have lost their jobs and have no new job opportunities.”
Some struggled to find enough to eat.
“People had very sad faces,” Ngo Thi Bich Huyen of Saigon Children’s Charity told Al Jazeera. “They had no money to eat and no money to pay the rent of their room and children had no milk to drink. They could only count on a bunch of vegetables or rice or some food from the church or charities.”
The easing of Ho Chi Minh City’s lockdown – which came with 99 percent of the city’s adult population who receive at least one dose of the vaccine and 60 percent of both doses — and the departure of the migrant workers doesn’t end their ordeal, though.
While many returnees have received at least one shot, Ho Chi Minh City still records thousands of new cases every day; the city reported 2,490 positive cases and 93 deaths on Monday, compared to the one-day COVID-19 peak of 8,499 infections and more than 200 deaths in early September.
In the provinces where the labor migrants return, the vaccination rate is low.
In the provinces with the highest return rates – An Giang, Kien Giang, Dak Lak and Soc Trang – vaccination rates for those who received a single dose range from a low of 13.7 percent in Dak Lak to a high of 41.8 percent in Kien Giang. The percentage of fully vaccinated people is lowest in Soc Trang at 4.7 percent, while An Giang has the highest complete vaccination rate at 8 percent.
Vietnam has a limited supply of vaccines and its vaccination push has prioritized major cities and hard-hit Ho Chi Minh City. As a result, only 10.9 million people in the country have been fully vaccinated, which amounts to just over 11 percent of its population.
Amid fears the returnees could trigger Delta outbreaks, local authorities are asking workers to pay for their time in isolation, but many say they can’t afford it after months without income.
“Right now, all primary and secondary schools are being converted into makeshift dormitories,” a Vietnamese economist who did not want his name used told Al Jazeera. “These inter-province emigrants still have to pay 80,000 VND [$3.50 ] per day for seven days of quarantine if they have received at least one vaccination and for two PCR tests.”
PCR tests cost 700,000 Vietnamese Dong, about $30 each.
“You have to quarantine out of pocket for 14 days,” he said. “Many will have trouble paying.”
A family helping Saigon Children’s Charity charity Huyen during the lockdown struggles with the cost of tests and quarantine after leaving Ho Chi Minh City.
The family of five lived near Huyen’s home in the city’s Go Vap district, but when she went to visit them in late September, they were gone.
‘I called him to ask ‘where are you?’ to ask him where he was going, but he said: ‘I had no money left and I can’t pay the rent of the room, so I had to go back,’ said Huyen.
Now the family is quarantined in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta region, where the man she spoke to is concerned about how to pay the quarantine costs and provide for his family.
“His family has to be isolated for 14 days, but he is also worried about how he can pay the money because he told me that he has to pay 80,000 for one person for one day,” she said.
“It’s hard because he still needs some money to pay for the food for his kids as well.”
“It’s a very sad story.”
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