The good news is that there is light at the end of our long, dark pandemic tunnel in the form of two new vaccines now available in Hong Kong. Finally, we can dare to imagine a return to something that resembles life as we knew it before the coronavirus—students back full-time in classrooms, restaurants packed late on weekends, bars humming, live events in full swing and no more Zooming.
But any return to normalcy requires moving quickly toward herd immunity, and that needs everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. And herein lies the problem; far too many people are hesitant, opting to wait and see or not get vaccinated at all.
Part of the reason is distrust of the local government, an outgrowth of 2019 protests that exposed this society’s deep political polarisation. Some people don’t want to sign up to get vaccinated for the simple reason that the Hong Kong government is asking them to. Many others do not trust the efficacy of the China-supplied Sinovac vaccine.
There are some legitimate concerns. Normally a new vaccine is years in development and is tested on millions of people in multiple controlled test trials before being offered up to the general population. These new vaccines against Covid-19 came about in less than a year, and there are still unanswered questions—about how they might interact with other medications or preexisting conditions, whether they are suitable for the very old and very young, their efficacy against new virus variants and the possibility of becoming infected or passing the virus on to others after being vaccinated.
Then there is the fake news floating around, the misinformation and deliberate disinformation that is causing confusion and alarm. For example, there is the false report that the BioNTech vaccine changes your DNA makeup. And there is the conspiracy theory on Twitter, debunked by our student fact-checking team at the Annie Lab, that Chief Executive Carrie Lam did not really receive a Sinovac jab because the syringe seen in her photo-op appeared different from one used normally with a Sinovac vial. There are also rumours circulating that the government intends to swap the BioNTech vaccine for the less effective Chinese-made version.
Here, journalists have a key role to play in helping educate the public. Debunking falsehoods and fake news is one part, although busy reporters should not waste time going down every conspiracy rabbit hole.
Journalists also need to report seriously and soberly about possible vaccine side effects, and that means, for example, not hyping the story with big headlines every time someone dies or suffers an allergic reaction shortly after getting a vaccine jab. As a percentage, the number of people who have suffered adverse health after a vaccination has been minuscule, far less than 0.01%. Most of them were suffering from pre-existing conditions and there has been no scientific linkage between the few deaths and the vaccine. I could get a vaccine jab and be hit by a minibus while leaving the vaccination site—there’s just not any cause and effect there.
Journalists can also help educate the public by writing stories that address people’s legitimate questions and concerns. What are the guidelines for people in their 80s or 90s with pre-existing conditions? What about teenagers? And explain clearly the difference between the vaccine that uses the mRNA molecule, which it does, and manipulating the body’s DNA, which it does not.
Finally, journalists need to follow the science and listen to those who know. When questions arise, talk to the experts in epidemiology and public health, who are always more than willing to explain things. And rather than focusing too heavily on the rare cases of people getting ill from the vaccine, journalists need to keep reminding people that Covid-19 remains a lethal virus that has already claimed some 2.6 million lives.
Virus and vaccine coverage is too important to get wrong. Journalists need to step up to the task, and take seriously their role in helping educate the public.
Keith B. Richburg
Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre