Hong Kong, Facing Low Coronavirus Vaccination Rates, Plans Social Punishments

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on March 30, 2021. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong officials warned Monday that it may soon ban individuals who choose not to receive a Chinese coronavirus vaccine from nearly all major public venues, including restaurants, schools, movie theaters, and performance venues.

Hong Kong received international praise for promptly securing enough doses of two different kinds of Chinese coronavirus vaccines – the Chinese-made “Coronavac” by Sinovac Biotech and the vaccine produced by the American company Pfizer – for its entire population. Hong Kong residents have largely avoided vaccination, however, in large part due to concerns that Coronavac is unsafe or ineffective.

A series of deaths locally tied to “Coronavac” exacerbated the problem, as Hong Kong approved the use of “Coronavac” in senior citizens when the Communist Party of China had not done so. Hong Kong officials assured the public that no evidence suggested a “direct causal association” between vaccination and death in the documented cases, many of them among the city’s elderly, but they nonetheless affected public enthusiasm for the vaccines. The Coronavac deaths prompted a marked increase in Hong Kong residents canceling vaccination appoints, including those who had already received one dose of either product. Among those who did choose to get vaccinated, local media noted an increase in appointments with attorneys to draft final wills and testaments in the event that the vaccine products killed them.

Coronavac and the Pfizer vaccine are significantly different in quality. Studies outside of China found that the Sinovac product was barely over 50-percent effective in preventing infections. In contrast, the Pfizer vaccine has tested at 95 percent efficacy.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed last week she did not believe financial incentives would help attract more residents to vaccination sites and Hong Kong officials publicly speculated that the city may have to discard vaccine doses if they expire before anyone wants them. The local, Beijing-controlled government has largely relied instead on private businesses to offer perks to vaccinated people in an attempt to entice residents to inoculate themselves.

On Monday, officials suggested it may soon rely on those same businesses to do the opposite: punish unvaccinated individuals by depriving them of access to their services. According to Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Hong Kong Health Secretary Sophia Chan listed “restaurants, schools, student hostels, constructions sites, libraries, museums, cinemas, and performance and sports venues” as places that may soon require vaccination to enter.

“Chan also said those who haven’t been vaccinated may not benefit from other concessions, such as shorter quarantine periods if they’re found to be a close contact of a [Chinese coronavirus] patient,” RTHK added. It noted that Lam, also addressing the public Monday, attempted to soften the blow of the potential new conditions by asserting that no individual who falls into high-risk categories for severe vaccination side effects would be subject to the restrictions.

“You need not be worried that it will be applied to the extent that people who are not medically fit will still be required to take the jabs in order to use something which is essential to their daily living for example going to school,” Lam reportedly promised. Lam added that it was necessary for unvaccinated people to “participate in order to be fair to all those who have taken a jab hitherto.”

Lam also announced that she was personally advocating for businesses to offer “goodies or discount coupons” to vaccinated people to entice residents to take the shots.

“It’s more than a jab in a very ordinary sense that apart from receiving the dose, you will have a chance of getting something back,” Lam explained, “whether it is extra holiday provided by the employer, whether it is a lucky draw with certain goodies or discount coupons in shopping malls or free tickets to the theme park and so on.”

The Hong Kong government itself does not offer any incentives to all residents, but will soon offer perks to government employees. Every vaccination date – two per person – will be worth an extra vacation day to government employees, Chan announced Monday. The public transit system also launched a raffle for vaccinated residents Tuesday giving away 500 free yearly passes.

Hong Kong health officials have stated that they believe they need 70 percent of the population to receive full inoculations to reach herd immunity, in which all members of a group are largely protected from infection because so many are immune. As of Monday, about 21 percent of Hong Kong residents have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose.

The change in incentives follows laments last week from senior government officials in the city that residents simply appeared disinterested in the vaccine offerings, partially due to distrust of the Hong Kong government – coopted by the Chinese Communist Party after a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019 – and partially due to the low number of coronavirus cases the city has confirmed. As of Tuesday, Hong Kong has documented 11,848 cases of coronavirus and only 210 deaths, despite being a densely populated city of over 7.5 million.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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