HK: Getting the jab done

June 03, 2021 10:23
Photo: Reuters

Let’s face it. Hong Kong, we’ve got a vaccine problem.

Vaccine uptake remains sluggish, especially amongst the youth. The citizenry at large remains skeptical of the merits and need for vaccination – and, had it not been for the incredible stint pulled off by a select few property developers last week, rates would have likely remained that way for quite some time. Sinovac, Pfizer – it doesn’t matter; what matters, instead, is that the Hong Kong public appears to be fundamentally opposed to getting the jab.

And why’s that, you may ask?

Some (especially those in the establishment) blame the media. The media are scaremongering, or so they claim – overhyping the frequency and severity of side effects, downplaying the need and imperative of getting vaccinated, and lending far too much credibility to the fringest of fringe theories concerning what the administration is ostensibly up to with its vaccine campaigns. Media shenanigans are making life difficult for the administration, who is already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to international and domestic optics. It’s the journalists, damn it.

But for all those in the administration and establishment politicians who weren’t born yesterday, they should know fully well that the media backlash and scrutiny – whilst irritating and certainly excessive at times – are part and parcel of public policymaking. Presumably, the solution to a raucous press is neither to crack down on it (which would only spur further conspiracies and misinformation), nor to flagrantly ignore what the press is saying: both of which appear to be strategies that our establishment has mercurially vacillated between – though never striking the necessary sweet-spot in the middle.

Maybe we should look elsewhere, then. Perhaps ‘tis to do with Hong Kong’s relatively decent case numbers, which have lowered the public’s sense of urgency when it comes to undertaking preventative measures? After all, why bother with getting a needle poked through one’s arm twice, when one could simply make do with washing one’s hands, wearing a mask (or not, alas!), and continuing on with life as normal?

Here’s the thing – this fallacious argument is structurally no different from the complacent claim that given we have yet to experience the real impacts of climate change in our part of the world (though, I don’t know about you, but the horrendous downpour this Tuesday certainly put a damp cloth on more than just my hair – ‘tis a sign of the times to come), we should do nothing to stop climate change. This is, again, an absurd claim.

We’ve seen in India, Taiwan, and Singapore how quickly an outbreak can spiral out of control. Yes – we’ve done alright so far, with a highly conscientious and industrious civilian population, a broadly committed and ardent healthcare workforce, a passable administration, and a civil society that has stepped up to fill in where the government falters. Yet to think that these measures and virtues alone would suffice, is akin to playing Russian Roulette whilst drunk. All we need is one slip-up, one hole in the system, one superspreading event, for the entire city’s best made plans to go absolutely awry. Vaccination isn’t a bonus, it’s a must.

It’s a must for those who regularly (even infrequently) interact with vulnerable populations who can’t receive the jab, or who are especially susceptible to the most severe symptoms of COVID-19. It’s a must for those who work with children, teenagers, the sick and the ill. It’s also a must for our economy to gradually re-open – think about the numbers, think about the jobs, and, above all, think about what life would look like in six months’ time, if we still can’t open up our darned borders fully, for we have yet to pass the vaccination rate requirements that other states or regions will have, by then, unilaterally imposed upon us.

And you know what? I don’t blame or fault most amongst those who refuse to get the jab. The communications strategy from the administration hasn’t been great, to say the least. From a layperson’s perspective, it remains deeply unclear as to what the unique, distinct benefits that one could only accrue from vaccination in fact are. Will we receive substantially reduced quarantine periods (reduced, yes, but to what effect when it comes to incentivising folks?)? Will we be exempt from wearing masks outdoors? Can we cite our being vaccinated as a legitimate reason or justification for convening and participating in large-scale events? What does getting the jab do for us, independent of the jab itself?

Now, I know, I know – the puritans amongst my friends would protest: surely, vaccination is a matter of civic duty, it should not be contaminated or imbued with any additional incentives that should be “below us” at this point.

Yet it’s one thing to talk about vaccination in theory, it’s another to roll it out en masse, and it’s another thing, still, to see through to individuals getting successfully vaccinated. Yes, there exist civic duties on our part to protect others, our families, and ourselves – this is commonsense, and this is indubitably quasi-truistic. You’d be preaching to the choir in trying to convince me… but most folks operate on the basis of incentives – people need reasons for them to do things. These reasons may well be impure; they could even be tainted with the vice of avarice – money, the root of all evil. But at the very least, paying folks to get the jab can and does work.

More generally, it’s high time for the government to restore public confidence in the establishment. Buy-in, support, and appreciation of the administration have been at all-time lows over the past year. Hongkongers need active reasons to support the state – it shouldn’t be that the state is demanding support with nothing to offer or give, for that is blatantly against the very grain and ethos of governance. If the Government House is genuinely committed to making vaccinations work, it’s high time that they worked – seriously – on their PR strategy, and beyond.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review