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As Covid tsunami engulfs globe HK anti-vaxxers say city is safe

Lack of English and political distrust have ensured the city's vacine hesitancy silo will only get deeper. It is time to pull this ‘World City’ city out of that dangerous echo chamber.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, June 2021

HK CE Carrie Lam gets her jab

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam getting her vaccination

WHY would anyone, apart from the most fervent depressive, say no to life? Yet, in Hong Kong, a bustling financial city with several universities ranked among the world’s TOP 100 and no dearth of bright minds, there is a puzzling reluctance to roll up sleeves for the Covid-19 vaccine. This stubborn refusal to help the world inch closer to herd immunity, prompted Professor Lam Tai-hing from the University of Hong Kong to recently lament on RTHK that people “should be ashamed of themselves”. He is right.

Singapore and Hong Kong, two cities frequently compared with their dominant Chinese population and statistical similarities, have diverged vastly on this issue. By June 2021 Singapore had fully vaccinated 35.5% of its population with a little over 4m doses while Hong Kong had concluded 2.7m doses to protect just 17.3% of its population, a sad tally for a city at the forefront of virology and epidemiological research since the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Vaccines a pandemic deterrent

Vaccinations are a necessary global deterrent to global pandemics. This is how a scourge like smallpox was eradicated, with determined, often compulsory, inoculations at schools and hospitals. In 1905 the US Supreme Court weighed in on this comparing vaccinations in a health emergency to conscriptions during war. It was a pattern emulated for a while by several countries.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


While unblinkingly commonplace now for measles, mumps or flu, it was not an easy route for vaccinations. In India, laws for compulsory vaccinations were enacted from 1870 (following the UK) though this did not blunt superstition and Brahmin opposition

While unblinkingly commonplace now for measles, mumps or flu, it was not an easy route for vaccinations. In India, laws for compulsory vaccinations were enacted from 1870 (following the UK) though this did not blunt superstition and Brahmin opposition. In South Africa in 1913, Mahatma Gandhi, a forward thinking lawyer who would later take on the British Empire, unequivocally described vaccinations as ‘sacrilege’.

In fact, under the 17th century Ming dynasty in China, powdered smallpox scabs were already being blown into the nasal passages of healthy individuals to induce a mild reaction that led to immunity. Early Indian ‘tikadars’ entrusted with the unsavoury task of variolation (using agents from an infected person to inoculate another) were bought off by the wealthy and encouraged to abandon their profession. Vaccine mandates are rare today.

Anti-vaxxer arguments range from the boringly banal to eyebrow-raising.

In Hong Kong, where the government has racked up a poor record of civic communication in the choppy wake of banned democratic protests and the new Doberman-toothed National Security Law, it is often, if incorrectly, accused of conflating health with mysterious hidden agendas. It was earlier whispered vaccines were a nefarious attempt to grab citizens’ DNA (something that could be easily accomplished by visiting any barbershop to sweep up hair from the floor).

A more fanciful microchip scare borrowed heavily from Sci-Fi or perhaps the digital implant scheme attributed to Bill Gates by right-wing US alarmists and state actors. It bears underlining that the Hong Kong smart ID card already carries all the bearer’s information. Other smartcard transactions on a bus or train and QR code scans at convenience stores, reveal movements and purchases in real time. With all those CCTV cameras from London to Beijing and face-recognition AI, swanning around by stealth is not really an option anywhere.

No place – unless hermetically sealed – is safe. Cities like Hong Kong depend entirely on the outside world for commerce and daily sustenance and many of the imported cases have been linked to cross border goods traffic, cargo operations and flight crew

But Hong Kong is safe

“But Hong Kong is safe,” people say. This head-in-the-sand notion is easily countered. People should take a long hard look at Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, UK, or India. China too has not been immune.

There’s a Covid tsunami sweeping the globe. No place – unless hermetically sealed – is safe. Cities like Hong Kong depend almost entirely on the outside world for commerce and daily sustenance and it is unsurprising then that many of the imported cases have been linked to cross border goods traffic, cargo operations and flight crew. The time to act is now. Not when the tsunami is sighted. It takes a month to get full protection. And vaccines have a limited shelf life.

“There are side effects too,” others caution. Side effects are common even with spicy hotpots of uncertain provenance that send people to hospital with alarming regularity. Yet no one thinks twice about dipping into a fiery communal slurp. If you really buy into scary movies, read the fine print on over-the-counter medicines and peruse the list of potential side effects that may kill you.

We have become hamstrung by humbug. In an increasingly inward looking city, echo-chamber chat and rumour have muscled out newspapers and magazines that actually bother to check the facts. In Hong Kong, sharply eroding English standards have further isolated much of the population from international currents and left it vulnerable to manipulation. Social media feeds on fear. And this determines the nature of the online discourse, not truth or the facts.

Politics a litmus test of fact

Politics has wrongly become a litmus test of fact for many in Hong Kong. Some may not like or trust the administration, but weaponising vaccine obduracy is cutting the nose off to spite the face. As the global Covid toll mounts, you can play whack-a-mole with those who deny science or you can simply pose a simple question. Would you rather embrace life or death? Turning away from vaccinations is ultimately frivolous, wasteful, costly, and uncaring.

What has become clear to many corporations and governments – toying with free burgers, cash, lotteries, holidays and dating deals to promote jabs – is that incentives can only go so far. The real leap has to be made with education and solid, honest information that transcends national borders.

The Hong Kong government must set out its pubic relations stall with speed and imagination. Hongkongers need to be brought into contact with the rest of the world through an education policy that promotes English and, more urgently, through widely dispersed television shows, news and advertising as a social service. It is hard to overstate this. Language is the key to the world. Most Europeans speak three languages. Hong Kong – ‘Asia’s World City’ – can easily do the same. It is the surest way out of the gopher hole.


Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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