An American returning home from Vietnam shocked with homecountry’s COVID-19 response

Paul Neville and his family fled Vietnam when the US warns all Americans abroad to immediately return the United States, but was taken aback seeing the lack of safety precautions or serious concern about the COVID-19 crisis in comparison to Asia.
March 31, 2020 | 08:09
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Neville and his family (Photo courtesy of Neville family)

Neville was born and raised in the city of Issaquah, Washington, is co-founder and chief operating officer of Lana Learn in Vietnam, an e-learning videoconferencing platform. Before launching Lana Learn, Neville spent 14 years as a diplomat in the U.S. Department of State. He is from Issaquah, received a business degree at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle.

He had no intention of bringing his wife and two kids back to the States two weeks ago, even when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the world over.

However, when the U.S. State Department released a Travel 4 Advisory that urged all Americans abroad to immediately return to the United States on March 19, his family scrambled to buy next-day flights out of Vietnam.

“Despite the rising number of COVID-19 infections in the United States, I was eager to return home and have access to top-quality medical support”, said Paul, who had worked in the US State Department for 18 years.

Sharing with The Times, he said Vietnamese people, under government mandate, everyone were masks in public places. In every building, business, apartment complex and public space, officials take temperature readings and provide anyone enter the establishment with hand sanitizer.

“The government required all passengers on our flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei to wear masks, even my thumb-sucking 2-year-old. Vietnam, reflective of the rest of Asia, is taking the COVID-19 virus very, very seriously”, he added.

In contrast, as Neville witnessed, only half the passengers from Taipei to Seattle, presumably mostly American, were wearing masks.

He nearly became a social-media meme as he stood in the aisle of the plane lambasting a trio of young women who had to cut their Thailand backpacking trip short. They were mock coughing and joking about COVID-19 panic, declined with cavalier arrogance as he offered them extra masks. His wife forced him to sit down before he got kicked off the plane and trapped in Taiwan.

“Once we landed in Seattle, I had expected to see staff in hazmat suits with thermometers. As the initial epicenter, Seattle was the Wuhan or Milan of the United States. Instead, it was mostly business as usual. When I asked a Customs and Border Protection official why she wasn’t wearing a mask, she looked at me befuddled and said, ‘because there aren’t any’. Tragic, as the COVID-19 virus is extremely contagious and lingers in the air for several hours. All it takes is one sneeze from a carrier to risk infecting everyone in his or her vicinity. Equally as tragic is the epic failure of testing availability”, he stated.

Instead of feeling relieved having returned to the US, Neville feels a sense of insecure looking at how the country is fighting with the epidemic. He is afraid that the Covid-19 situation in the States is way more disastrous than in Asian countries, including Vietnam, and concerned about the US’s ability to contain the coming economic crisis.

Hundreds of people are dying every day in Italy from COVID-19 despite their lockdown efforts. Without draconian efforts like in Asia, the projections show Seattle and other similarly affected U.S. cities to be only three weeks away from Italy’s disastrous numbers.

“In China, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, if a person is found infected, the government will chain the door of an apartment complex and close off an entire city block, feeding people through windows. Then a team will trace the steps of the infected person and test people he or she previously contacted. Despite these incredible efforts, these countries are now struggling to contain a second wave of infections”, the Times quoted Neville as saying.

The contradictory facts in Seattle made Neville realize that many Americans are still not taking COVID-19 seriously. Already, trillions of dollars have been lost and millions of jobs eliminated.

“COVID-19’s mortality rate maybe around 1%, but up to 20% of people infected require hospitalization and may have permanent lung damage. Do Americans need to see more infections and deaths than in China or more deaths than the annual flu to take COVID-19 seriously?”, Neville shows his worries.

He also added that while China is beginning to rev up its economy, the United States is unraveling. The scary reality is China may take advantage of a weakened U.S. economy with serious geopolitical security implications.

“Despite all this, we can’t give up. I don’t want to regret coming home to the United States because it turns out that Vietnam is a safer place”, he said.

To realize this, according to Paul, Americans must do their part to follow Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay at home” order. In addition, everyone should pressure elected officials to accelerate testing capacity for everyone; ramp up production and distribution of masks first to medical professionals, then service workers in public spaces like airports and then to the general public.

“At the same time, we must comply with mandate wearing masks on public transportation, including flights”, he told The Times.

“Humans are resilient and, thankfully, there will be an endpoint to this, but swift and decisive action must be taken now. While we are all struggling to survive and get by, we must still work together to avoid things getting even worse”, Neville concluded.

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Jasmine Le
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