Why Hong Kong’s elderly are steadfastly refusing Covid vaccines

A slew of scandals involving tainted food and drugs haven’t helped. In 2018, for instance, there was uproar after it emerged that a major pharmaceutical company, Changchun Changsheng, had violated standards in making at least 250,000 doses of vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. The firm was later fined $1.32 billion by the government.

“[This] actually undermined the trust in Chinese domestic vaccines,” said Dr Huang. Yet during the pandemic, China has been disparaging of foreign-made vaccines – especially the mRNA shots developed by Pfizer and Moderna – in an effort to champion its own. 

“The effort to disparage the foreign vaccines, highlighting the side effects, only convinced the elderly that the side effects are a big problem. In a way they have collateral damage for the domestic vaccines as well,” said Dr Huang.

In Hong Kong, people have been going to extreme lengths to bypass vaccine mandates, including purchasing medical exemptions. Authorities recently arrested the staff of a clinic that was found peddling the certificates for HK$800 each without consultations or reviewing patients’ medical history.  

It boils down to individual risk assessment, said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist from University of Hong Kong. As the government has expressed a high degree of confidence in sustaining zero cases, the perceived risks of vaccination far outweigh the benefits. 

Though reluctance among younger people may be overridden by mandates at workplaces and public facilities, there were limited carrots available to encourage older adults to be jabbed. 

“If there’s a clear message that Covid was going to be widespread in the community and everyone would have a chance of getting infected, then I think the risk assessment would change,” said Prof Cowling. 

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