Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Tens of thousands of Vietnamese who once made a living in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s COVID-19 epicentre, are returning to their home provinces in desperation after authorities lifted a strict stay-at-home order last week, raising fears that the highly infectious Delta variant could spread in parts of the country where vaccination rates remain low.
The mass exodus, which began on Friday, has left local officials in the Mekong Delta region and the Central Highlands scrambling to track and quarantine the returnees, many of whom had weathered months of lockdown without work or sufficient food in Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding provinces.
So far, at least 200 positive cases have been found among the 160,000 people who have returned to their home provinces, the Zing News website reported on Tuesday.
“The sea of people returning home at this time is extremely difficult for our province to handle,” Nguyen Than Binh, a local official in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, was quoted as saying.
“For the past three days, we have worked non-stop to receive, screen, test and provide food and accommodation for people,” he said. “People ride motorbikes all day and night and it rains, so those on duty have to buy raincoats for everyone. We are also providing dumplings, bread, and drinking water to stave off 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. Some 44 tests returned 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 suspend departures from Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding regions.
The province of Ca Mau, fearing a surge in cases, suspended its plans to loosen COVID-19 curbs on Monday, telling residents to go outside only if necessary.
‘We are afraid to die here’
It was not supposed to be this way.
When authorities lifted the strict stay-at-home order in Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding provinces of Long An, Binh Duong and Dong Nai – which are Vietnam’s economic powerhouse and home to some 3.5 million migrant workers – they did not allow travel between provinces.
But after months of lockdown, the latter weeks during which people were not permitted to go out even for food, many migrant workers were desperate to return to their homes.
When the stay at home order came to an end on Friday, chaotic scenes played out at Ho Chi Minh City’s checkpoints. One video from that day showed migrant workers on their knees, offering incense to security forces in the customary way Vietnamese pray to their ancestors, as they pleaded with the soldiers to let them leave the city.
“You are afraid that your boss will scold you for letting us go, but we are afraid to die here,” a woman could be heard saying.
At another checkpoint at the southwestern edge of the city in Binh Chanh District early on Friday morning, thousands of people on motorbikes crowded together, and children slept on the side of the road as they waited to be let through.
“I have had nothing to eat, and all I have been eating lately are instant noodles,” Lang Thi Thanh, one of the men waiting at the checkpoint, told a local film crew in Vietnamese. “I worked as a bricklayer and I have lost my job for four months already. I did not have money for food at all.”
Another woman, Tran Thi Thanh, said that she did not know how to survive any longer in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I’m still in debt of 40 million Vietnamese Dong [$1,762] and I have no money to buy food. ‘Tell me how I can stay?’ I want nothing now but to go home,” she said.
As dawn approached and security forces refused to let the workers through, scuffles broke out and people knocked down the barricades that blocked 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 starving here,” Nguyen Thao, a 32-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City, told Al Jazeera. “This is the first time I saw something like this. People wouldn’t be that aggressive if they were not pushed to the edge of life … I think at this time they have to break the rule to survive.”
Similar scenes also took place in the neighbouring province of Bin Duong on Saturday, 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 tack and allowed people to leave, but said returnees must be tested and quarantined on their return home. While continuing to urge people not to leave “unsupervised”, authorities on Saturday arranged 113 buses to get 8,000 migrants home. Police in neighbouring Dong Nai province escorted 14,000 people on motorbikes out of the region on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of others, however, have returned without official supervision.
Images published on local media on Sunday showed exhausted travellers resting on piles of bricks and on the ground as they waited to be processed at an isolation facility in mountainous Dak Lak Province. Other images from Tuesday show scores of people travelling thousands of kilometres through the rain with their luggage strapped to their motorbikes.
Some even attempted their journey home on foot.
Yeah TV, a local television channel, published an image on Facebook on Sunday of one man walking along a highway while pushing a stroller carrying his two small children. The channel said the man had started out in Dong Nai and would be walking 39 hours to his home in Tra Vinh province.
Analysts and charity workers blame the chaos on a lack of government support.
They say the authorities failed to provide sufficient aid to migrant workers in Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounding regions during the months-long restrictions, which began in late June and were scaled up on August 23 to a near-total ban on leaving homes.
Some 130,000 troops were deployed 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.
“The government support was too little. It was never enough,” Ha Hoang Hop, a senior fellow in the Vietnamese Studies programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera. “[They left] because they lost their jobs and have no new job opportunities.”
Some struggled to find enough to eat.
“People had very gloomy 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 for their room and children had no milk to drink. They could only rely 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 receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and 60 percent of both doses – and the departure of the migrant workers does not bring an end to their ordeal, however.
While many returnees have received at least one jab, Ho Chi Minh City is still logging thousands of new cases daily; the city reported 2,490 positive cases and 93 deaths on Monday, compared with the COVID-19 one-day peak of 8,499 infections and more than 200 deaths in early September.
The provinces the migrant workers are returning to, meanwhile, have low vaccination rates.
In the provinces with some of the largest numbers of returnees – An Giang, Kien Giang, Dak Lak and Soc Trang – vaccination rates for those who have received one 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 full inoculation rate, at 8 percent.
Vietnam has a limited supply of vaccines, and its vaccination drive has prioritised big cities and hard-hit Ho Chi Minh City. As a result, only 10.9 million people in the country have been fully vaccinated, making up just more than 11 percent of its population.
Amid fears the returnees may drive Delta outbreaks, local authorities are asking the workers to pay for their time in isolation, but many say they cannot afford it after going months without an income.
“At the moment, all of the elementary and high schools are being converted into makeshift dorms,” a Vietnamese economist who did not want his name used told Al Jazeera. “These inter-province emigrants still need to pay 80,000VND [$3.50 ] per day for seven days of quarantine if they have gotten at least one vaccine shot and for two PCR tests.”
PCR tests cost 700,000 Vietnamese Dong each, approximately $30.
“You are required to be quarantined for 14 days out of your pocket,” he said. “Many will struggle to pay.”
A family that Huyen, the charity worker from Saigon Children’s Charity, helped during the lockdown is among those struggling with the cost of tests and quarantine after leaving Ho Chi Minh City.
The family of five lived near Huyen’s place in the city’s Go Vap District, but when she went to see them at the end of September, they were gone.
“I called him to ask ‘where are you?’ to ask him where he went but he said ‘I ran out of money and I’m not able to pay the rent for the room so I had to go back,’” Huyen said.
Now the family is in quarantine in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta region, and worried about what happens next.
“His family needs to stay isolated for 14 days but he is also worried about how to be able to pay the money because he told me that for one day for one person he needs to pay 80,000,” she said.
The family has now submitted a handwritten letter to their local People’s Committee and is waiting to find out if the quarantine fee will be waived.
“It is difficult because he still needs some money to pay for food for his kids as well,” Huyen said.
“It is a very sad story.”