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Spared for Months, Vietnam Faces a Wave of New COVID Cases

The nation has prided itself on containing the coronavirus. But an outbreak at a church in Ho Chi Minh City and the emergence of a deadly new variant suggest its luck may be running out.

For more than 20 years, the husband and wife were stalwarts of their evangelical community: pastors who founded a small church in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where they led services and distributed food and clothing to the needy.

Now, the couple are pariahs. They have been blamed by the authorities for a major coronavirus outbreak, are facing a criminal investigation and have been held accountable on social media for a lockdown in their neighborhood and a ban on religious services nationwide.

The Protestant pastors, Phuong Van Tan and Vo Xuan Loan, who are hospitalized with Covid-19, are accused by city health officials of allowing parishioners to pray together without wearing masks, a violation of coronavirus protocols that officials say resulted in an outbreak in May linked to more than 200 cases.

Vietnam has prided itself on successfully containing the coronavirus since the pandemic began. As the country’s neighbors tallied their dead and imposed nationwide lockdowns, the Vietnamese government kept the virus at bay by relying on strict quarantine measures, diligent contact tracing and localized lockdowns.

The Communist nation has recorded 7,572 cases and just 48 deaths since January of last year, according to a New York Times database. By contrast, nearby Malaysia, which imposed a national lockdown on Tuesday, has recently recorded higher case numbers in a single day.

But the church cluster in Ho Chi Minh City, outbreaks at factories in the country’s north and the emergence of a troubling new variant all suggest that Vietnam’s luck may be running out. More than half of the country’s cases have occurred in the past month.

“Vietnam is now officially entering the pandemic,” Tran Van Phuc, a doctor who posts frequently about the virus, wrote on Facebook. “The next 12 months will be the most difficult in controlling the number of infections so as not to overwhelm the health system and limit the number of deaths.”

Dr. Phuc said the country’s low rate of vaccinations combined with the new outbreaks place Vietnam in the position that many countries faced early last year.

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