Addressing Hongkongers’ vaccine hesitancy

May 04, 2021 11:42
Photo: RTHK/Reuters

Vaccinations are not going well in Hong Kong.

Uptake is extraordinarily slow – especially as compared with other developed countries or regions. Israel, for one, has a population 1.5 million more than Hong Kong’s, and a vaccination rate of nearly 60% (as of the end of April 21, 2021). In contrast, only a little over 1 in 10 of Hong Kong’s citizens had received at least a dose by the same date. Setting aside concerns pertaining to allergy and/or legitimate reasons for vaccine exemption, it is apparent that the vaccination drive is going poorly – and, as much as we’re all enamoured by the prospects of a Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble, the touting and talk of the bubble seem as good a pledge as that of “Business as usual” in Hong Kong politics: not very.

This is somewhat understandable. After all, Hong Kong has done relatively well with respect to containing the pandemic, and keeping cases low. There exist limited reasons on the part of most Hongkongers to want to travel abroad or leave the city (though some segments of the population may beg to differ) – the city remains a comfortable, lofty home for a majority, save for the downtrodden underbelly, who has been forced to bear the brunt of the ongoing economic downturn. Above all, media hype and hyperbole have left many skeptical of the efficacy and safety of vaccines. The costs and benefits simply do not add up to favour unambiguously the option of vaccination. Hence the lethargy.

Yet the current limbo we are caught in is by no means sustainable – it is a limbo where partial lockdowns and social distancing restrictions are taking a slow, albeit substantial, toll on our economy. We are far from a fully open economy, as much as business is as usual for most denizens; more pertinently and urgently, perhaps, for those whose livelihoods and income depend upon cross-border travel, the status quo is economically untenable. We can ill-afford to have an unvaccinated population be the default, especially as economies around the world are seeking to rekindle cross-border and international tourism and trade as they emerge from lockdowns.

There are three critical points that the administration should take heed of. The first, is that as much as the relatively hastily assembled vaccines would understandably yield casualties and unintended side effects, the government must do more than just dismiss public woes and worries as “part and parcel” of vaccination campaigns, or as mindless paranoia. To the extent that the public lacks scientific literacy, the solution must rest with active educational campaigns and promotional drives that speak to the anxieties of the public, that engage with their concerns specifically – e.g. concerning the casualty rates, dangers, and costs/benefits of vaccinations, and that offer reasonable recompense in the medium to long run to those who are afflicted by the effects of the jab. Additionally, the government should work with NGOs and civil society organisations – including members of the much-hounded and -maligned “oppositional” media – in delivering critical messages (“lines to take”, so to speak) to the public. It is a downright sign of governmental failure that there are substantially more folks commenting on and responding to the ostensible inadequacies and dangers of Sinovac and BioNTech, than folks illustrating and articulating the benefits of getting the jab.

Obviously, it can’t just be all talk. Assuaging public fears requires the government to provide them with a suitable range of options – offering only two vaccines cannot be the way out. As much as AstraZeneca and Sinopharm have issues of their own, it behooves the government to expand the range of options available, such that individual citizens could at least feel that there exists some modicum of agency and choice on their part. Government officials should not act in accordance with what they deem to be politically correct ad simpliciter – e.g. promoting Sinovac at the expense of alternative vaccines. If the administration is to rebuild credibility and regain trust in the eyes of the public, it should not politicise the issue of vaccines – even Beijing has let out the word that it is contemplating potentially recognising Pfizer as amongst the vaccines that would qualify individuals for a waiver of quarantine requirements. Hongkongers deserve the right to choose – not only amongst “Western” alternatives, but also Sinopharm, an option that is touted and cited by many in China as the default vaccine (that you can get it in Macau, and not in Hong Kong, is a both ironic and tragic indictment of the state of politics and administration in our city today).

Finally, on the question of incentives. Either the administration toughens up, and legislates to make vaccinations mandatory (which would be politically unpopular, but it is unclear if that makes much of a difference these days), or it must offer substantially more incentives (financial or otherwise) to spur citizens’ vaccinations. As much as the handouts from the Financial Secretary over the past years are welcome injections into the stagnating economy, it would make much more sense if these handouts were pegged to vaccinations – after all, getting vaccinated is a matter of duty… at least, that’s the way things ought to be, really.

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Assistant Professor, HKU