Vaccine Skeptics Fear Communist Party As Much as Side Effects in Hong Kong

All but COVID-free for two years, Hong Kong is experiencing a deadly outbreak that has spilled over its land borders into China—and the central government in Beijing may be partly to blame.

Before the city's Omicron surge began in late December 2021, its daily infections rarely reached double digits. With nearly 700,000 cases and 4,300 deaths in a matter of weeks, Hong Kong is now reporting the highest mortality rate per million anywhere in the world, with many elderly among the dead. Observers are pointing the finger at Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose government's "zero-COVID" policy is being stretched to its limits, with hospitals and morgues overflowing and the economy under threat because of complacency.

Critics say local authorities didn't use the time available to them to drive up the city's vaccination rate. The government is currently moving to enforce social distancing as a last resort. Cases, growing by tens of thousands a day, have already spilled into mainland China. There has been an alarming outbreak in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, home to assembly plants run by iPhone manufacturer Foxxcon, among other production lines. Shenzhen's 12.6 million residents are in lockdown in one of several cities experiencing their worst spikes since the early days of the pandemic.

According to Hong Kong's official figures, just over 72 percent of its 7.5 million residents had been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday—three weeks after the peak of its Omicron wave. It's a glaring protection gap when compared to the 1.2 billion people who have received two shots in China, where the vaccination rate is approaching 90 percent. Critically, the acceptance rate among the elderly—those above 80—is proving far too low, and fatally so. Only 36 percent of the age group are fully vaccinated, compared with 53 percent of those above 70 and 66 percent of those above 60.

The city's vaccine hesitancy has been the subject of urgent debates for as long as the life-saving shots have been available. The local government offers residents both Sinovac's CoronaVac from China and the more effective Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, marketed as Comirnaty. But the take up rate has been painfully low from the start. In May 2021, amid reports it was preparing to discard hundreds of thousands of doses of unused vaccines, the Hong Kong government said it would discuss with manufacturers how best to handle the surplus.

Analysts have put vaccine skepticism down to both psychological and political reasons. Like in the United States, the fear of side effects is real, a sentiment that creates panic among the elderly due to amplification by the media. However, the low vaccination rate also reflects a deep mistrust in Hong Kong's authorities, which have spent the past two years executing the Chinese Communist Party's heavy-handed crackdown on democratic freedoms.

The pandemic struck Hong Kong six months into large-scale protests in the city that saw millions take to the streets against a proposed extradition law. June 2020 witnessed the rapid drafting and passing in Beijing of the Hong Kong national security law, a piece of sweeping legislation that has led to the arrests of hundreds of pro-democracy activists, politicians and publishers.

The local government has also cited public health grounds for ending Hong Kong's decades-long tradition of marking the Tiananmen Square massacre every June 4, while prominent memorials such as the "Pillar of Shame" have been removed from university campuses.

All this has led to deep suspicion of local leaders and their handlers in Beijing. Part of the refusal to take COVID shots may even be a form of civil disobedience. A total lack of public trust means Hong Kong has been unable to shield its population from dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories about CoronaVac—the world's most widely used shot in pure numerical terms—but it's also failed to encourage take up of one of the world's most sought after inoculation solutions in Comirnaty.

When the public does choose, their preference is clear: about two-thirds of the 4.5 million fully vaccinated residents chose Comirnaty, a trend that continues into those who have received booster shots.

The local government is still encouraging vaccinations, but research from the University of Hong Kong expects 60 percent of the city's residents—about 4.5 million people—to be infected with COVID by the end of the current wave. More than half of the population likely has already caught it, the researchers say, while the death toll come May 1 is forecast to reach 5,100 people.

Hong Kong Suffers World's Worst COVID Spike
Health workers wearing personal protective equipment unload a patient from an ambulance outside the accident and emergency department of Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on March 11, 2022. The city is currently facing its worst-ever COVID-19 outbreak. DALE DE LA REY/AFP via Getty Images