Initial hostile reactions to quarantine facilities and the vaccines in Hong Kong (arson attacks, mind control accusations, and “a way for Beijing to steal our DNA!”) seem bizarre to us now, but they are just two years old.
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT of criticism regarding deaths in Hong Kong’s fifth wave of Covid. It can certainly be said that the city’s health department could have done better. It can also be said that talking from hindsight is always easier than getting things right the first time.
Taking a moment to recall what actually happened during the past two years is an illuminating exercise about the special challenges being faced by freewheeling Hong Kong, which differentiate it from, say, mainland China or Singapore.
1) DOCTORS AND ARSONISTS
Getting the anti-Covid operation started in Hong Kong was tough. REALLY tough. Health department doctors and support staff didn’t just face Twitter abuse from pandemic sceptics, as was common elsewhere.
Anti-China groups literally took to the streets to halt health department activities. They physically blocked roads and erected road blocks to prevent movements around areas needed for quarantine facilities during the first month of 2020, when Covid-19 was still a terrifying mystery.
After doctors identified a building in the Fai Ming Estate in Fanling as an ideal quarantine center, it was attacked by a masked group who set it on fire with Molotov cocktails.
2) EASIEST SYSTEM IN THE WORLD
Despite such challenges, Hong Kong made remarkable progress. When vaccines arrived in February 2021, the city was an early and efficient adapter of them. By the following month, Hong Kong was considered one of the easiest places in the world to get vaccinated. And that’s not the government’s claim, but the view of Bloomberg, a news agency notorious for its sour coverage of everything related to Hong Kong. (See pic below.) Getting the vaccine was easy and free, and took just minutes.
3) REFUSAL ON PRINCIPLE
But within days, it became clear that there was a knot of hard resistance from anti-China groups. “Few in ‘yellow-ribbon’ circles trust the government’s vaccination programmes without significant reservations”, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
Numerous Q-Anon type tales spread about the vaccine being a mind-control agent from Beijing. Others said it was a system to “steal” the DNA of Hong Kong anti-China activists for cloning or similar purposes. (What for, one might ask? Surely these were LITERALLY the one breed of human they didn’t want more of?)
Others took the line that whatever the authorities recommended should be automatically refused, even if it was rescue from a deadly global pandemic that killed you and your entire family. By that time, it was already known that the elderly were most at risk. “I won’t take the vaccine, because my friends and I just don’t want to follow any instructions or recommendations from the government,” a 16-year-old student named Chau told Bloomberg in March of 2021. Pleas to consider grandparents’ health went disregarded.
4) JABBED IN SECRET
But many members of the public were fine about getting the jab, and adding “I’ve been vaxxed” to their social media profiles.
Eventually, some of the anti-China people put on their hoodies and had themselves secretly jabbed to avoid harassment from their fellow hostiles.
A man named Johnny Jip “accepted the Pfizer vaccine and was pleasantly surprised by the process, which he found comfortable and safe,” the Hong Kong Free Press reported. But Jip chose not to post about it on social media. The “social norm” among his peers was to refuse to co-operate.
5) THE SIDE-EFFECTS ISSUE
The challenge faced by doctors grew exponentially when media started headlining cases in which people suffered side effects (one man had facial paralysis, for example). Reporters began watching the post-vaccine waiting rooms for anyone who looked ill.
The situation got worse when there were a spate of stories in which every vaccinated person who died for any reason (such as a 41-year-old man who died in a gym accident) in the days or weeks after being vaccinated was presented as a “victim” of the vaccine.
Doctors struggled to set the record straight, but the reports went on for weeks. “From a communications perspective, it’s a disaster, because you’ve already let rumours or fake news settle in people’s minds. It’s very hard to erase all that and instil new beliefs,” Kimmy Cheng from Baptist University’s communication studies department told the South China Morning Post.
“Deadly side effect” stories from the media were on everyone’s phones. “There is a lot of news about the adverse reactions spreading on social media and WhatsApp groups,” Selene Yau, 24, told Bloomberg. Even though she and her family members had different political sympathies, both were discouraged from getting vaccinated by these scary stories.
In Singapore and mainland China there were also anti-vax stories circulating, but they were limited to a small minority of social media, with little or no mainstream coverage.
6) THE PRO-VAX FIGHT BACK
In Hong Kong, the government and the pro-vax majority made a strong effort to fight back against a loud and often hostile media. A string of campaign posters, leaflets and messages came from the government, and the public joined in with their own creative messages.
Government officials rolled up their sleeves to be filmed getting jabbed. The man who is arguably Hong Kong’s biggest celebrity, tycoon Li Ka-shing, received his injection to show that even old people could take the shot safely.
Hong Kong doctors were stumped as to how to stop the media exaggerating side effects without censorship, which they realized would make things worse.
Eventually, health officials hit upon a plan. They continued to release information about vaccinated people who later fell ill – but also included data about people who didn’t have a jab but ended up hospital. So a typical vaccine data release would include the fact that in the previous 24 hours, 62 people who didn’t get the vaccine were rushed to intensive care.
This enabled people to put the side-effects issue in proportion without any media censorship.
There was widespread consternation in March of 2021 when the public reported that some “top Hong Kong doctors group” was advising everyone to refuse the “unsafe” vaccines from China in widely spread viral messages.
Investigations revealed that the messages were not from doctors, but political activists from the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a group of anti-China hospital workers. The group admitted sending the messages.
At this time, members of the public started a social media hashtag called #HKTwitterGetsVaxxed. But some people who spread it were harassed as traitors. “When it first became popular, some even alleged that it was secretly a government social media campaign to coerce critics into getting the vaccine,” the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
Hong Kong’s rambunctious anti-China movers used web discussion boards, Telegram groups, newspapers, and news groups, to keep the negative news flowing, particularly about Chinese vaccines.
By May of 2021, many incentives to get vaccinated had been rolled out, including the right to bigger restaurant dinner parties, travel benefits and so on. Eventually cars, gold bars and free apartments would be added to the mix. But the resistant groups continued to resist—and a specific puzzle concerning the over-60s began to emerge.
Health researchers found a small group of actual doctors who were recommending that older people avoid getting vaccinated. These doctors apparently believed the exaggerated stories of the side-effect risks that the media had so energetically been distributing.
In a related issue, there were a number of families of very elderly people who refused to sign consent forms, sometimes for political reasons.
Some people among the public suggested forcible vaccinations, but this was never considered. Instead, mobile vax stations were sent out.
9) VICTIM OF SUCCESS
Doctors noted one other unusual factor that caused resistance to vaccination. The community’s success at keeping the virus at bay became an issue in itself.
Literally millions of people had died outside China. But in Hong Kong, the number of deaths from respiratory illnesses was actually LOWER than normal years. Bizarrely, it could be argued that Covid had been good for Hong Kong.
From the point of view of some elderly hold-outs and their families, this was a decision point. Why bother to get vaccinated when people were not dying of the disease, but were dying of the side-effects, as they had read?
10) OMICRON FEARS
In the final months of 2021, there were further concerns. There was a huge campaign from the international media to persuade Hong Kong to drop its tough border-quarantine policies, which made flying in and out hard for Western migrant workers, known as “expats”. (While Caucasians make up less than one per cent of Hong Kong’s population, the international media has obsessed over their rights and opinions for decades.)
But local doctors were reluctant to drop restrictions – pointing out that the density of Hong Kong’s population meant that if Omicron was allowed in, it would spread at very high speed.
Massive bed facilities were prepared at the Asiaworld Expo and a quickly built infection hospital in North Lantau to deal with an increase in potential cases. More could have been done, but again, that’s an argument from hindsight.
In the event, Omicron was stopped at the border in December, but managed to get in and spread during January through a super-spreader who worked as a cleaner.
By this time, the over-60s had been vaccinated in large numbers, and the over-70s were close behind, but the over-80s lagged behind.
BRINGING THE STORY UP TO DATE
The bad news for Hong Kong was that the doctors’ fears of rapid spread turned out to be correct with large numbers of infections, and many deaths, almost all among the unvaccinated over-80s. The bad news for the government is that their projections had been wrong, and they had to scramble to get more beds.
The good news was that most cases in Hong Kong were mild. The data showed clearly that both vaccines in Hong Kong worked.
The current number of deaths is 4,634, of which 4,424 are 60-plus, and 3,255 are 80-plus. In other words, 95 per cent of victims are older people.
With numbers already falling, there are hopes that the total will be below 10,000.
For comparison’s sake, London has suffered more than 18,000 deaths. In New York, the deaths in care homes alone were more than 15,000.
So in comparative terms, Hong Kongers are facing up well to the community’s list of unique challenges. Doctors battling to set up a quarantine center while masked men try to burn it down – well, that, thankfully, is a challenge that most doctors in London and New York will never have to face.
This is part of a four-element series showing the difference between the conventional wisdom on Covid-19 and the actual data. Click this line to go to the overview of the series.