Consumers in Vietnam are calling on the government to control prices for COVID-19 rapid test kits, as patients at hospitals pay up to 30 times international wholesale prices, sources in the country told RFA.
Though rapid test kits cost around 35,000 dong (U.S. $1.54) on the international market, a lack of supply in the Southeast Asian country forced provinces and cities in to bid against each other, causing wholesale prices within the country to skyrocket, said Dang Hong Anh, the Chairman of the Vietnam Young Entrepreneurs Association.
According to the Department of Health, Equipment and Works under the Vietnamese Ministry of Health, a quick test kit cost between 100,000 and 200,000 dong before August 20, but sources told RFA’s Vietnamese service that they were paying much more to get tested.
“It cost us 3.3 million dong each to do the test at the Vietnam – France International Hospital,” a resident of Ho Chi Minh city, who identified herself by the initial Q, told RFA.
Q and her husband needed the tests to complete U.S. residency applications.
“I thought they would perform a blood test or a throat swab, but they just picked my nose. The tests set us back 6.6 million dong, but we had no choice. In May, my sister did a COVID-19 test at Military Hospital 115, and it only cost her around 1.2 million dong,” she said.
Although Vietnam’s government at one time was proactive in applying price controls, it now lets the market decide the prices for many goods and services, according to Ngo Tri Long, former Director of the Ministry of Finance’s Institute for Price and Market Research.
“In the past, the government determined prices for everything, but now it only controls the prices for electricity, oil, gas and other commodities that dominate the market and for which there is not much competition,” Long told RFA.
“The government lets the market determine the prices of other goods and services through free competition,” Long said.
Long said that the Ministry of Health does control prices for COVID-19 testing, but not the quick test kits, with prices determined by manufacturers and sellers. Because of this, importers and sellers have been accused of price gouging.
“The public has raised their concern and I also think that the Ministry of Health should impose a ceiling price on the rapid testing kits… to avoid price gouging during this terrible pandemic,” Le Dang Doanh, the former president of the Central Institute for Economic Management told RFA.
In order to prevent price inflation, in 2020, the Ministry of Health required enterprises to publicly list the selling prices of medical equipment and materials on the Ministry’s Health Declaration Portal.
On July 6, Ho Chi Minh City’s health department issued an urgent dispatch, requesting hospitals and medical centers to apply the same prices for testing services. However, testing prices still vary from one medical center to another.
In response to the media and public concerns over the inflated prices, the ministry of health called on provincial health departments to draw up a plan to purchase medicines, chemicals, biological products, and test kits.
The ministry said procurements must be conducted in a scientific, safe and efficient manner; waste and losses must be prevented; and responsible authorities must take corruption seriously to prevent profiteering.
According to the Ministry of Health, the prices of rapid testing services range from 109,000 to 200,000 dong. However, market prices range from 300,000 to one million dong.
What looks like price gouging may just be testing kit importers raising prices in response to government corruption, Vo Xuan Son, Director of EXSON International Clinic, wrote in a Facebook post.
“I don’t know how big their profit is. However, I do know in a certain way that they have to cover many expenses in order to import the goods and sell them in Vietnam. Bribery is needed at every ‘door,’” said Son.
Prior to the pandemic, he said, importers had to pay a bribe of set amount to pass each hurdle in the import process, he said.
“But since the start of the pandemic, imports of many different products have been disrupted, so now the bribe prices are higher than usual. There are also other expenses like travel permits, and QR codes and things like that,” said Son.
“So it’s not really fair to jump to conclusions and say the companies are price gouging. There are others feeding off these companies, and they are making even more money than the companies themselves,” Son said.
Many of Vietnam’s cities had been under a strict lockdown for the past few months until the government officially lifted restrictions last Friday.
Authorities told businesses in Ho Chi Minh City to test their employees for COVID-19 at their own expense if they wanted to reopen. But observers warned that without government price controls, testing could become cost prohibitive for many of the city’s small enterprises.
Vietnam had been among the most effective countries in tackling COVID-19, reporting no deaths through late July 2020—a record that was attributed to effective contact tracing, strict quarantines, and early testing.
After weathering three waves of the virus with confirmed cases numbering in the low thousands, a fourth wave arrived in April 2021, causing the current outbreak, with a caseload that passed the 800,000 mark over the weekend.
As of Tuesday, Vietnam had confirmed 813,961 cases of COVID-19 and 19,845 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.