By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, May 14 (EFE).- At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, Hong Kong people were quick to respond, trying everything they could to keep the mysterious virus from mainland China at bay. They adopted mask wearing and sanitized their hands frequently, a vigilant approach they proudly attribute to the city’s relatively low number of Covid-19 infections.
But now that Covid-19 vaccines are widely and easily available in the Asian financial hub, many Hongkongers have been uncharacteristically slow to react. Since a vaccination program was launched in late February, the inoculation rate of Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.5 million people, has remained low.
As of Friday, only 730,000 Hong Kong residents were fully inoculated, representing 11.2 percent of the total population compared to 22 percent in Singapore, another financial hub in Asia, and 58.8 percent in Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world.
For the city’s financial officials and business sector, Hongkongers’ vaccine reluctance is concerning. They fear the slow uptake would delay easing of travel restrictions and would be to the detriment of Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub, which has already taken a battering of late due to the city’s political turmoil.
“If you were a regional executive sitting in Hong Kong running the regional business in Hong Kong, without being able to fly around in Asia or fly back to your headquarters for reporting, will you think ‘I should remain in Hong Kong, or should I move to another center?’” said Eddie Yue, head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.
A financial commentator and newspaper columnist who prefers to go by his pen name “CEO Ching” also fears Hong Kong’s competitiveness will be undermined if people remain apathetic to vaccines.
“The world is now in a race to boost vaccination rates. The impact of a low jab rate on an economy will emerge soon. If Hong Kong fails to catch up and travel restrictions cannot be lifted, many industries will suffer. The local insurance sector, for example, could lose a lot of mainland Chinese customers to Macau, which is now open to mainland visitors,” he said.
The commentator blamed the government for failing to incentivize people to head to vaccination centers, other than letting restaurants open longer hours and reopening entertainment venues on condition staff and customers are vaccinated.
“You can’t even call these incentives. They are merely measures forcing people to get the jab. To motivate people, it takes something attractive, but we have yet to see anything so far,” he said.
In some countries, issues such as logistical bottlenecks, delivery snags and manpower shortage are to blame for their low jab rate. But Hong Kong, a city world-famous for its efficiency, has none of these problems. The official Covid-19 vaccination program, launched on Feb. 26, is by and large efficient and accessible. The government has secured more than enough doses for all citizens aged 16 or above, and vaccination centers are well-manned.
Nevertheless, widespread suspicion of vaccines, prompted in part by media reports of a handful of medical incidents or deaths among people who had gotten their shots, is putting off many Hongkongers from getting the jab.
According to a survey conducted by a local healthcare group that polled 718 unvaccinated adults in April, 76 percent of the respondents worried they might not be fit enough to take Covid-19 shots. Only 29 percent said they would get their shots, 34 percent would not, and 35 percent remained undecided.
Flora, who’s in her 40s and owns a massage parlor, said she and her whole family see no urgency to be vaccinated after reading the news.
“I am relatively young and healthy, but why should I take the risk? I will only get it when push comes to shove,” she told EFE.
As of May 2, health authorities recorded 28 deaths and nine cases of miscarriage of baby among people who had Covid-19 vaccines recently, but the government said none have been linked to the vaccine.
Since the pandemic began, Hong Kong has recorded less than 12,000 cases and 210 deaths.
Professor Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist with the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told EFE that although he understands Hongkongers’ concerns over vaccines, the risk of any serious side effects are minimal, whereas the consequence of not getting vaccinated can be dire.
“We cannot return to pre-Covid-19 normal until we have a high vaccine coverage, otherwise our population will be vulnerable to a large Covid-19 epidemic with major health impact. Until we reach high vaccination coverage, we will likely continue to have universal masking, on-arrival quarantines, and intermittent social distancing policies if Covid resurges.”
According to political commentator Leung Kai-chi, Hongkongers’ vaccine hesitancy is partly attributable to the unpopularity of the Hong Kong government, whose approval rating has plummeted since a controversial government bill on extradition to mainland China sparked an anti-government movement in 2019.