People walk past a pedestrian crossing during lunch hour in the Central district of Hong Kong, on June, 7. Photo: Bloomberg
Vijay Verghese
Vijay Verghese

Hong Kong must step out of the darkness and embrace coronavirus vaccines

  • Eroding English standards, mistrust of the government and echo chamber chat forums have all contributed to the refusal to get vaccinated
  • Education and honest information that transcends borders are needed to end the delusion and bring Hong Kong into the light
Why would anyone say no to life? Yet, in Hong Kong, a bustling financial city with several universities ranked among the world’s best and no dearth of bright minds, there is a puzzling reluctance for people to roll up their sleeves and get a 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 lament on RTHK that people “should be ashamed of themselves”. He is right.

Singapore and Hong Kong, two places frequently compared with their majority Chinese population and statistical similarities, differ vastly on this issue. 

By the end of May,  Singapore had fully vaccinated 30 per cent of its population with more than 4 million doses administered. Meanwhile, Hong Kong had fully vaccinated just 15 per cent of its population and given out 2.7 million doses, a sad tally for a city at the forefront of virology and epidemiological research since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

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. The US Supreme Court weighed in on this in 1905, comparing vaccinations in a health emergency to conscriptions during war.

While 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, 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, in 17th-century China under the Ming dynasty,  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 a healthy one – were bought off by the wealthy and encouraged to abandon their profession. Vaccine mandates are rare today.

Arguments put forward by anti-vaxxers range from vaccination being a “lifestyle choice” and Hong Kong being “a safe place” to wild  conspiracy theories. You can play whack-a-mole with those who deny science or you can pose a simple question: would you rather embrace life or death? 
The Hong Kong government – which has racked up a poor record of civic communication in the wake of banned pro-democracy protests and the new  national security law – has been accused of  conflating public health with mysterious hidden agendas.

Earlier in the pandemic, there were fears that testing and vaccines were a nefarious attempt to grab citizens’ DNA, something that could be easily accomplished by visiting any barbershop or hairdresser to sweep up their hair. 

Some even claimed vaccines might contain microchips or other digital implants. It bears noting that a Hong Kong  smart ID card already carries all the bearer’s information. Other smart card transactions on a bus or train and QR code scans reveal movements and purchases in real time.

With all the CCTV cameras from London to Beijing and facial-recognition AI, living stealthily under the government radar is not really an option. 

“But Hong Kong is safe,” people tell me, “and there are side effects, too.” To this I simply say, read the international news – not echo chamber chat forums – and look at Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand or India. 


Rural India struggles to vaccinate villagers despite Covid-19 surge

Rural India struggles to vaccinate villagers despite Covid-19 surge
Wait and see” can work for a while, especially for those with valid medical concerns, but it might be an unsightly scramble at the end if vaccines run out, as they have in so many countries. Hong Kong is one of the few places that actually has a surplus.
The time to act is now. Side effects are common even with  spicy hot pots of uncertain provenance that can send people to hospital, yet no one thinks twice about dipping into one. If you buy into scary movies, read the fine print on over-the-counter medicines and peruse the list of potential side effects. 
Online  chat and rumours have muscled out newspapers and magazines that bother to check the facts. In Hong Kong,  eroding English standards have further isolated people from international news currents and left them in information silos, vulnerable to manipulation.

Social media feeds on fear, and these clicks determine the online discourse, not truth or the facts. 

Politics has become a litmus test of fact for many in Hong Kong. Some might not like or trust the administration, but weaponising  vaccine hesitancy is cutting the nose off to spite the face. 
What has become clear to many corporations and governments – which are toying with everything from free burgers and holidays to dating deals to promote vaccinations – is that holidays and  other incentives can only go so far. The real leap has to be made with education and honest information that transcends borders. 

The Hong Kong government must set out its public relations stall with speed and imagination. Hongkongers need to be brought into contact with the rest of the world through television shows, news and advertising as a social service and through greater use of English. This is something Singapore excels at.

Hong Kong – “Asia’s World City” – needs to step out of the gopher hole and into the light.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, newspaper columnist and the editor of and