On vaccine politics, public communication and political efficacy

March 08, 2021 09:41
Photo: HK Government

The vaccine is political. To put it bluntly, the medical is political.

The recent rollout of vaccines across Hong Kong has been marred by plenty of unfortunate ‘events’ – intermittent in their frequency, statistically insignificant (somewhat) in their occurrence, regrettable in their having happened, and scandalous in further tarnishing the repute of a COVID-19 response that has been lackluster – to say the least.

Indeed, those who oppose the government’s COVID-19 response have cited isolated incidents – e.g. the passing of the 63yo man in late February, or the death of the 55yo woman days after vaccination earlier this month – as ‘evidence’ attesting to the ostensible inefficacy and detriments of the vaccine.

Now I’m no scientist, but I’d posit that, as with most medical interventions, there exist inherent risks in vaccination – and that such risks must be appraised prudently and put into perspective: perspective in recognising that vaccination programmes should aim to minimise, as opposed to eliminate, any and all potential accidents (to achieve the latter is incredibly difficult, if not impossible); yet also perspective, in noting that such casualties are by no means the exclusive product of Sinovac vaccine – other vaccines, too, have been associated with their fair share of (alleged) accidental casualties and unintended side effects.

Yet it’s one thing to speak science – it’s another to speak ‘human’, as the proverbial Cantonese phrase that many an official in Hong Kong has been berated for not doing. And indeed, speak human they must, in a way that fruitfully speaks to the woes and worries of the public – that assuages folks of their concerns, as opposed to amplifies pre-existing mistrust; that relays scientific information impartially, and that refrains from opportunistically politicising health in name of stability, law, or order.

Firstly, the administration needs to address the concerns of the public over vaccine safety. Not everyone’s a rocket scientist from MIT – and it shouldn’t be the case that the risks and contingencies of the vaccines can only be comprehended by those who are scientifically hyper-literate. Indeed, it behooves the government to walk the public through the strengths and weaknesses, the prospective benefits and limits of existing vaccines. Where vaccinations have seemingly ended ‘disastrously’, the administration must open themselves up to independent investigations spearheaded by publicly credited experts, so as to credibly dispel unfounded rumours.

More generally, officials must face – and explicitly indicate their registration of – the fact that the public has both the right to worry and the right to know. Perhaps they have been fed misinformation by scaremongering media and opportunistic politicians; or perhaps they are merely paranoid – fine. Yet dismissing public worries as exaggerated and unfounded ad simpliciter should be a last resort, if ever a resort, for our administration, or indeed, for that matter, any administration. Only in demonstrably signaling humility and compassion, could our administration rebuild the deeply frazzled trust that constitutes public-government relations today.

Secondly, the government must empower our citizens as partners, as opposed to adversaries, or subordinates to be managed. Engage community leaders, activists, and members of the youth – as opposed to merely antiquated celebrities and well-pampered, privileged members of the city’s upper echelons. Celebrate the efforts of our conscientious and meticulous citizens, who have played a large part in curtailing the spread of COVID-19 over the past year.

Now, the government should be commended for allowing citizens to effectively choose where (and thus with what vaccine) they are vaccinated. This move reflects a modicum of respect for citizens’ agency, and also the administration’s political sense – which has been sorely lacking in other aspects of governance. It is citizens, as opposed to the overbearing nanny state, who should have a say over what enters into their bodies – provided that sufficient information and facts are available.

Yet the recognition of ‘agency’ on display here is inadequate – because it does not address what goes on post facto. What are citizens to do if they believe they have been subject to undue side effects following on from vaccination? Are they genuinely capable of registering their objections and retrospective reservations over getting vaccinated? Or will their concerns be merely tossed out of the window or swept under the carpet, as politics drives out decency?

Look, I’m not – for one – positing that such complaints would fall on deaf ears in the administration; I am equally hopeful that large swathes of Hong Kong’s public health bureaucracy – especially its frontline workers and staff – remains fiercely devoted to their cause and professional standards. Yet these are valid, even if objectively unjustified concerns that the government must address. It must explicitly clarify and explain; it must speak out over these worries – or risk being branded and smeared by those with ulterior motives. Legal protections and formal protocol alone are insufficient – they must also be communicated to and seen as extant by the public.

This takes me onto the final point. Fundamentally, the public’s skepticism towards Sinovac (or, indeed, most government-administered vaccines) is merely a symptom of the broader problem of the widespread general distrust of the government. The relations between the administration and our civil society have reached historic lows over the past two tumultuous years.

Fixing and restoring public confidence will take more than expensive, lavish P.R. campaigns (especially ones that lack targeting or focus), or, indeed, heavy-handed legislative changes – it requires our administration to be staffed by officials who can speak in the language that the public understands, speak to the concerns of the millions of citizens in the city, and speak on behalf of the majority of Hong Kongers.

I’m proud to be a Hongkonger. Hong Kong is a beautiful, resilient city with much potential – it falls upon all of us, government or public, to forge a path ahead for all, as opposed to the few.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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