Politics Helps Explain Hong Kong's Low Vaccination Rates

Think about what other *advice the government is giving people...

At a COVID vaccination center in Hong Kong
At a COVID vaccination center in Hong Kong
Ho Wai On

HONG KONG — Vaccine hesitation here is not only about science, but also related to Hong Kong's history, identity and current politics. The widespread mistrust toward the Hong Kong administration and the central government in Beijing, false information about China's own SinoVac vaccine is constantly circulating online among those from Hong Kong.

There is misleading media coverage about adverse side effects after vaccination, as well as the slowing down of the epidemic have also further weakened the existing low willingness to vaccination, creating a vicious circle.

First Draft, a research agency tracking disinformation, recently released a study on the challenges of vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong. It concludes by stating that if the government wants to achieve its goal of a 70% vaccination rate by the end of 2021, it must carefully analyze the types of information circulating and understand people's fundamental concerns before it can improve its public health campaigns and vaccination.

A printed sign indicating SinoVac vaccine at the Community Vaccination Centre —Photo: Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/ZUMA

"Due to its colonial history, Hong Kong sees vaccine options from the east and the west," said Esther Chan, editor of First Draft's Australian office who wrote the report. On Feb 26, Hong Kong started the vaccination campaign for SinoVac, which is developed and produced by China. This follows the introduction of the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, starting on March 10.

However, despite the fact that vaccination is free for Hong Kong citizens and there are sufficient supplies, vaccination rates remain low. According to the Hong Kong government, as of June 9, over 2.74 million vaccines were delivered, with about 1.14 million citizens out of the total 7.5 million population receiving both injections, with the vaccinated rate of only 17.4%.

Opinion polls from YouGov, a UK based poll agency, also showed a similar trend: the number of people in Hong Kong who wish to be vaccinated or those who have already been vaccinated, has dropped from 51% on December 13, 2020, to only 37% on May 10, the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region. Other Asian countries such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam all have more than 70% interviewees who wish to be vaccinated, for Taiwan it was 40%.

While the Hong Kong government is pressing ahead with vaccination, First Draft came to the conclusion that Hong Kong's skepticism about vaccines comes not only from safety and efficacy concerns, but also derives from a deeper distrust of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. Hong Kongers are not convinced that the government in Beijing is acting in the interest of the people, but for pure political considerations instead.

It's a classic "feedback loop," mixing science, emotion and political anxiety.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in late 2019 and early 2020, Hong Kong saw months of protests and unrest over a new law to prosecute locals on mainland China. Even though the movement has cooled down since the virus outbreak, the political situation in Hong Kong had undergone dramatic changes within the pandemic: China enacted the new law, the comprehensive National Security Law; the Hong Kong administration launched a massive probe and prosecution of key pro-democracy figures in January, and revised its electoral system in March to emphasize "Hong Kong is ruled by patriots." In the latest move, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in early May that a law to combat "false information, hatred and lies' is currently under development.

First Draft points out that Hong Kong's vaccination hesitancy is becoming a classic "feedback loop," mixing science, emotion and political anxiety: as people are worried about the safety, efficiency and the government's stance on the pandemic, vaccine reluctance rises, as does an overall mistrust for the government.

The evidence that political mistrust contributes to vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong is the fact that most of the disinformation and concerns are around SinoVac. The First Draft study notes that most of the misleading statements were about the safety of the Chinese-produced vaccine, rather than Pfizer BioNTech.

One example is that, after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was injected with SinoVac in live streaming, Facebook, Twitter and LIHKG social media platforms immediately circulated with postings and comparison photos in English and Chinese, questioning whether she was actually secretly taking Pfizer or AstraZeneca. Later, a fake YouTube video of "man develops epilepsy after SinoVac vaccination" went viral.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam getting the Second Jab of SinoVac — Photo: Vernon Yuan/NurPhoto/ZUMA

In addition, incomplete or inaccurate headlines or reports in the media about adverse reactions to vaccinations may further discourage people from getting vaccinated. First Draft found that from February to the present, headlines such as "Vaccine Victim — Another Death from SinoVac" and "12th Person Dies from SinoVac" were widely shared on social media platforms.

With the slow progress of vaccination in Hong Kong, the current Pfizer vaccination has been opened up for 12 year olds and above, while SinoVac is accessible for adults. In order to encourage vaccination, the Hong Kong government has exhausted its efforts, including offering new "vaccine bubble" measures at the end of April, allowing vaccinated groups to attend banquets with more than 20 people, re-entering bars, pubs, nightclubs and karaoke; the Hong Kong Airport Authority announced on May 26 that it will give away 60,000 air tickets in a lucky draw to Hong Kong residents and airport staff who have been vaccinated.

The most sensational of all is the "Get a Free House with Vaccination" lottery announced by Sino Group and Chinese Estates Holdings on May 28th, in which one Hong Kong resident who has completed two injections of vaccination will be selected to receive a 449 square feet (135 square meters) luxury house worth HK$10.8 million ($1.4 million)

In its report, First Draft quotes executive chief Carrie Lam's open criticism that "a small group of people distorts the intention of the community testing program and smears Chinese-made vaccines; (and there were) people stigmatizing and politicizing the vaccine procurement." In this regard, First Draft emphasizes that disinformation is successful because it usually stirs up emotions.

In the case of Hong Kong, it is because people are already concerned about vaccines and the political uncertainty. The report concludes: "Vaccine skepticism does not stay in a bubble, but rather interacts with and plays into existing issues."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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