Facebook to Help China Pressure Hong Kong into Taking Coronavirus Vaccines

A health worker prepares a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine, developed by China's Sinovac laboratory, to vaccinate elderly homeless people against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, at the Samaritano de la Calle Foundation in Cali, Colombia, on March 3, 2021. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP …
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook is reportedly set to begin working with the Beijing-controlled government of Hong Kong this week to pressure city residents to get vaccinated against the Wuhan coronavirus. 

Hong Kong has an even worse case of “vaccine hesitancy” than most of China. Hongkongers were suspicious of vaccines from day one, especially the dubious vaccines made in China. They have also obtained a supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which appears to be a far more popular choice for Hong Kong residents who do get shots.

Many Hongkongers simply do not trust their government and are disinclined to follow its commands, especially since Hong Kong has experienced less than 12,000 coronavirus cases and 210 deaths. At least nine people in Hong Kong died after receiving China’s Sinovac vaccine, greatly increasing public skepticism despite health officials insisting their deaths were unrelated to vaccination. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam complained in May that “we couldn’t even pay people to get jabs” because the public was so reluctant, and she thought literally paying citizens to accept the shots would be unseemly.

The people of Hong Kong – including frontline medical workers – were largely unmoved by government promises of relaxed restrictions for vaccinated people, or high-profile celebrities getting their shots in public and urging others to do the same. 

What finally got vaccination bookings to perk up last week, contrary to Carrie Lam’s ruminations, were lavish offers of incentives and big prizes from coupons,  discounts, and goodie bags to a bizarre lottery where the prize is a multi-million-dollar apartment. The Hong Kong city government, which is also its largest employer by far, chipped in by offering paid days off for those who get vaccinated. Two weeks after Lam said offering incentives to encourage vaccination “shouldn’t be done by the government and may even cause the opposite effect,” her government and Hong Kong private industries did exactly that, and the number of people accepting the shots increased significantly.

Vaccine hesitancy persists, much of it presented by young Hongkongers as an act of political defiance – “I will never get the vaccine. It’s the way I can keep on protesting,” as a 25-year-old waitress put it – while some older residents admit they are holding out to see how much better then incentives might get. Few seem to feel any great urgency to get inoculated.

Facebook is now stepping in to help, as the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported on Tuesday:

Users of the social media platform will be informed of who is eligible for a vaccination and be directed to a government site to locate a nearby vaccination provider. Private clinics as well as general out-patient clinics have been administering the vaccines in conjunction with the government’s community vaccination centers since late February.

The platform will also introduce new profile picture options to share a user’s vaccination status with their Facebook community. New filters include the phrases “I have been vaccinated!” and “Go get your jab!”

“Studies have shown that social norms have a significant impact on people’s attitudes and behavior related to health,” a statement read. “In order to make vaccinations more popular, Facebook will help users share the news that they have been vaccinated with others on the platform, and let them know that people they respect and care about have also been vaccinated.”

The HKFP noted Hong Kong is the third region to offer Facebook’s Chinese coronavirus features after the U.S. and India. Hong Kong officials are especially eager to nudge vaccinations higher because the city’s supply of the more popular Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will expire in September, at which point its community vaccination centers are scheduled to begin shutting down.

Hong Kong, like China, is also planning to lower the vaccination age to increase its percentages, although not by as much. Hong Kong plans to lower the age to 12, while mainland health officials this week approved vaccination for children as young as 3.

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