My family barely fled Vietnam last week before all international flights were grounded. Instead of feeling relief when we landed back in the United States, I was alarmed to see a lack of safety precautions or serious concern about the COVID-19 crisis in comparison to Asia. I am gravely concerned about America’s ability to avert a health and economic catastrophe.
As soon as the U.S. State Department released a Travel 4 Advisory that urged all Americans abroad to immediately return to the United States, my 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.
In Vietnam, by government mandate, everyone must wear masks in public places. In every building, business, apartment complex and public space, officials took temperature readings and provided 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.
In contrast, only half the passengers from Taipei to Seattle, presumably mostly American, were wearing masks. I nearly became a social-media meme as I 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. I offered them extra masks, but they declined with cavalier arrogance. My wife forced me to sit down before I 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 Boarder 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.
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.
Clear precedence shows where we’re headed, yet many Americans are still not taking COVID-19 seriously. Already, trillions of dollars have been lost and millions of jobs eliminated. What more will it take to convince people that this pandemic is really bad? Projections and charts don’t seem to work. Will people become more concerned after the death of a celebrity or the severe illness of a loved one? Sure, COVID-19’s mortality rate may be 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 (we’re closing in) or more deaths than the annual flu to take COVID-19 seriously?
All the while, Asian countries, including Vietnam and especially China, are poised to come out on top economically and, in their eyes, morally (“Our style of governance could stamp out COVID-19, why couldn’t yours?”). 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. Everyone must do their part to follow Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay at home” order. In addition, we 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; and mandate wearing masks on public transportation, including flights.
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.