Have ‘zero-covid’ policies caused vaccine hesitancy?

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Across the Asian Pacific, countries that so far have dealt well with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are struggling to meet much-needed levels of vaccine-driven herd immunity. Notably Hong Kong and Australia, both places whose governments have adopted ‘zero-covid’ policies seeking to eradicate all local transmissions, have seen high levels of vaccine hesitancy that will undermine future efforts to open up.

Australia and Hong Kong currently have some of the strictest quarantine regulations in the world. Both require lengthy two to three-week stays in state-approved hotels. This, combined with their governments’ liberal use of lockdowns in times of local outbreak, has largely meant that cases originating from within their borders have been minimal.

This has meant life in both places has largely returned to normal. However, it has also brought with it a complacency towards vaccination amongst their populations who no longer perceive the virus as a threat to their daily life. Vaccine hesitancy, as the UK Office for National Statistics describes, refers to persons who either “have been offered the vaccine and decided not to be vaccinated” or would be unlikely to have the jab if offered.

Vaccine hesitancy refers to persons who either “have been offered the vaccine and decided not to be vaccinated” or would be unlikely to have the jab if offered.

Levels of vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong have never been higher, with YouGov revealing that just 37% of the population intend to receive a full set of doses from one of the two vaccine-makers on offer: BioNTech and Sinovac. Even today, only a mere 2.1 million residents have taken both doses despite the government already holding enough jabs to vaccinate their entire population. Understanding why take-up there has been so sluggish can largely be explained by three factors.

The first highlights the lingering mistrust of vaccines, with misinformation and disinformation about possible side-effects rife across social media. As a result, many have opted to take a ‘wait and see’ approach. The second factor is largely political. Hong Kong, since anti-government protests began in 2019, has seen record low levels of government approval.

Hong Kong Free Press has stressed this deep mistrust of the government in contributing to slow vaccine uptake, with some reported as saying “whatever the government asks me to do, I’ll just do the opposite.” The final reason why Hong Kongers have not come in droves to community vaccination centres is that their life has largely returned to normal. Large amounts of the population do not see a real need to get vaccinated as existing zero-covid strategies have already proved successful.

This is the same case with Australia, with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers reporting that “almost one-third of the public does not intend to get vaccinated.” The poll points out that two of the largest factors in Australians’ rationale can be attributed to existing low case numbers and a lack of international travel. Quite simply put, Australians do not see the need to be vaccinated.

Though both places have seen success with their ‘zero-covid’ policies, the Australian Medical Association has expressed concerns with low vaccination rates. Such high levels of vaccine hesitancy, the Association states, make such countries sitting ducks in the event of large outbreaks and clusters. This has occurred in Taiwan, which has maintained some of the lowest cases numbers in the world until an outbreak exploded in mid-May. The island, with similarly high rates of vaccine hesitancy, saw cases rise to an unprecedented peak of over 1,000 on 23rd May.

To reach herd immunity, scientists suggest that 75 to 80 per cent of a population should be vaccinated.

To reach herd immunity, scientists suggest that 75 to 80 per cent of a population should be vaccinated. Governments of countries with high levels of vaccine hesitancy must do more to win over the trust of their citizens in their drives. In both Australia and Hong Kong, this has largely been lacklustre. As poorer nations across the globe struggle to secure their own doses of Covid-19 vaccines, those that can afford them cannot squander the opportunities they represent.

Image: Trinity Care Foundation via Creative Commons

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