“…and the greatest… is love.” – A Reflection on the COVID-19 Response of the Catholic Church in Vietnam

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthian 13:13

As Canada finds itself in the start of the fourth wave of COVID-19, looking at the brighter side of things, we at least have over 60% of Canadians fully vaccinated (as the time of this writing) and that will certainly mitigate the effects of this fourth wave. While health protocols will not be let down in the coming months, hopefully the high vaccination rates will avoid another lockdown. As of now, anyone above 12 years of age can get a COVID-19 vaccine, made accessible via mobile clinics or pharmacies. However, the gift of a COVID-vaccine is not made readily available everywhere in the world and the fourth wave is a completely different story in many countries.

A couple weeks ago as indoor dining reopened, I was out at Jack Astors with three other fully-vaccinated individuals. It was a beautiful evening as we caught up with each other in person. We had nice hearty meals of burgers, nachos, etc. Unfortunately, at that same time on the other side of the globe, I learned of that people in Vietnam, specifically the south in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and surrounding provinces were and continue to be under severe lockdown measures. I have some relatives in Vietnam’s Đồng Nai province and they are all under lockdown. While Vietnam has been able to manage the pandemic fairly well with very low number of cases and deaths. However, the recent months saw daily reports of thousands of cases.

For Canadians generally or Torontonians specifically, now known among many as the city in the world with the longest lockdown in the world, the term “lockdown” is all too familiar. Restaurants, and “non-essential” businesses were closed. Elementary and Secondary Schooling was on and off throughout the year due to these lockdowns. Places of worship were forced to close their doors to no more than ten people (in the second and third round of lockdowns). People like myself were studying and working from home. People were still allowed to go out to the grocery to get their necessary goods. The lockdown script in Toronto is something to remember for generations to come.

However, a developed country like Canada in a sense is blessed to have a lockdown of such sorts. A good number of people can work from home. Government funding has helped mediate a lot of losses throughout the pandemic. More importantly, people can still go out to get exercise and to their nearest grocery store to get the food they need. This lockdown script is not the case in Vietnam, however. It really put me in a surprise how different the definition of lockdown is in Vietnam, specifically in Saigon and its surrounding provinces, cities and towns affected by COVID-19.

The people of Vietnam, especially in the south is being crippled by COVID-19 now with hospitals maxed out with people breathing on ventilators and crematoriums running all day and night. From accounts I have read online recently, it is a nightmare. The reality of COVID-19 is different in Vietnam than in Canada. Saigon and its surrounding areas have very dense populations. I recall being in Saigon and residing in my grandpa’s house in Biền Hòa in 2010 – people are on the move all the time. A lot of people have face-to-face interactions as many, including my relatives live by trading. A majority of my family have shops that sell some sort of goods or services. Think about that, multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of people who pass in and out of shops and markets of Vietnam. Vietnamese people literally work on the streets and sell their services to those on the streets, via interactions. Hygiene and ventilation is not always the best either. Speaking of the healthcare system there, it is not ideal, partially because Vietnam is not as developed as Canada or the United States. That is possibly why I do read from time to time of cases in which Vietnamese clergy would go to America or European countries to be treated with a particular health issue they may have. These things: hygiene, sanitization, and healthcare are what I and so many North Americans take for granted. These things that North Americans take for granted are not readily available to people on the other side of the globe and thus, the pandemic script for them is unfolding very differently than in North America. That is not even speaking of vaccines, in which Canada currently has 62% fully vaccinated while a little over 1% of the population is vaccinated in Vietnam.

What I just spoke of is just the direct effects of COVID-19. Now, I want to take a look at lockdown life of the people under lockdown. I do want to be clear, I do not want to speak much of the political picture there because I think it can be assumed that readers do know about Communist Vietnam, though that in itself can be another dimension to speak of down the road. I just want to look at the facts now. Lockdown comes around, and people are forced to confine themselves in their own homes. Neighbourhoods are literally sealed off so people cannot leave the confines of their home. That means that people are not free to go out to grocery stores to get even the bare essentials. A bag of vegetables is scarce for both the rich and the poor. A packet of instant noodles have seen its prices skyrocket during the lockdown. My pastor here in Toronto said that not only will many people die of COVID-19 in Vietnam, but they would die of hunger. How often do we take the fact that we can go out for groceries in Toronto with no problem, even during lockdown? Meanwhile, we complain about long grocery store lines and long cashier lines.

It is precisely during these desperate times, though, that charity, that love is brought to the forefront. Archbishop Joseph Chí Linh Nguyễn, Archbishop of Huế and President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ of Vietnam wrote a letter titled, Thương Quá Sài-gòn Ơi! (Oh, poor Sài-gòn!) asking all the faithful around Vietnam to turn their hearts and minds to Sài-gòn not only in prayers, but in concrete works of charity. The response from the campaign has been overwhelming as truckloads of essential goods from all over Vietnam came to south Vietnam to help out, even from the poorest of dioceses around the country. From there, the diocesan offices, and particularly religious communities and parishes would distribute the necessities to not only Catholics, but anyone regardless of their race or religion were able to receive goods with no charge. It is this charity of a country that is able to take even the little they have, just like Five Loaves and Two Fish, to multiply it to feed thousands upon thousands of people. The Vietnamese proverb, “A fine leaf wraps a ripped leaf,” is exemplified to, “A leaf that has smaller rip wraps around another lead with a larger rip.” These are the sentiments that Archbishop Joseph Năng Nguyễn, Archbishop of TP-HCM expressed in his homily this past 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) upon reflecting the Lectionary readings.

The power of charity goes beyond only the sharing of material needs. Dioceses like that of the Archdiocese of TP-HCM and Diocese of Xuân Lộc have sent off clergy and youth leaders who volunteered themselves to assist medical front line workers. The demand for such aid was so great that the government turned to other parties and hundreds of clergy and lay faithful, as well as clergy of other religions opened themselves, urged by charity to serve on the front lines. As I came across the “diary” entries of various clergy on social media and on diocesan websites, how much compassion do I have for them – their courage in the midst of their fears and worries.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the great acts of charities that happen. Some may question why such big miracles like the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish in the world today. However, such miracles by Jesus are no longer necessary because as evident in the everyday storylines, even in those as grim as that of Vietnam during the most difficult waves of the pandemic, the clergy and lay faithful are the hands of Jesus as they live out true charity. Without charity, the greatest of theological virtues, many many people would be dying not only of hunger, but of desperation, of deep deep despair. Despair is a result of lack of charity, of selfishness. However, it is the charity and the faith in the goodness of people that is still keeping hope alive, and allows the miracle of the multiplication of the Five Loaves and Two Fish to be repeated over and over again, and therefore, making Christ, who is love, present in the world that we live in today.

Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.

St. Vincent de Paul

About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
This entry was posted in Catholic Reflection, Catholicism, Christian, Ethics, Evangelization, Mission, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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