The End of Pandemic, the Start of New Normalcy ?
Author: Queenie Li, Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation
The availability of Covid-19 vaccines is a welcome relief for a city tormented by the pandemic. But it is only the start of a long road to recovery.
It has been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic struck Hong Kong. Although the increase in new cases has eased recently, it may just be a matter of time before another new wave hits the city. The good news is countries around the world are now hustling to different stages of rolling out vaccination campaigns, whilst reports of the various brands are generally positive.
Since the United States started its vaccination programme in late December last year, the average number of new cases dropped by about 30 per cent according to the New York Times. Although research and development of Covid-19 vaccines was conducted at record speed, there are still concerns as to whether currently available vaccines would remain effective against the rapidly mutating virus. With developers like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson claiming their vaccines will work for the United Kingdom and South Africa variants, the top priority of governments remains to secure sufficient doses to vaccinate as many people as possible within the shortest period of time.
Several vaccines are now available worldwide, such as the American-German Pfizer-BioNTech, the American’s Moderna, the British-Swedish AstraZeneca, the Russian Gamaleya, as well as the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac. Countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and France started rolling out their vaccination plans from last December, while Israel already had one third of its population receiving the first dose by the end of January, ahead of the world.
The Hong Kong government has committed to vaccinate most of the population within 2021. Today it has already purchased at least 22.5 million doses, enough to vaccinate double the city’s population. With the approval of the Sinovac and BioNTech vaccines by the government, the first batch of about one million doses arrived at the city in late February and today, the vaccination campaign is in full swing.
New normalcy is a long-haul fight
The reality is that far before vaccines arrived in Hong Kong, many local sectors had already been badly hit. Unemployment rate has reached a 17-year high of 7 per cent. Pandemic fatigue is ubiquitous, as marked by incessant emergence of new Covid-19 clusters as a result of active social activities. Despite the hope bestowed upon us by vaccines, it remains doubtful whether it is possible to re-enact the pre-pandemic days.
City-wide vaccination can help the majority of the population to achieve immunity. Most importantly, the chain of transmission can be cut off sooner with fewer virus carriers in the community and can help to lower the transmission rate. When the number of infection cases falls, normal social activities and daily routines will have a better chance of resuming. However, international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has warned that vaccines might not eradicate all problems whilst Covid-19 could become an endemic disease. Protective measures such as wearing masks regularly, social distancing, effective quarantine and testing, timely epidemiological investigation and periodic vaccination could become part of our 'new normalcy'.
Community healthcare is key
As it becomes possible that we have no choice but to live with Covid-19, it is high time for the Hong Kong government to strengthen policy coordination in public health to help the public get back to normalcy sooner rather than later. Well-implemented preventive measures at the community level could foreseeably contribute to a drop in severe cases, which will greatly ease the pressure on public hospitals. This foretells the importance of healthcare planning.
In the short term, it is imperative that vaccination can take place in Hong Kong in an orderly and swift fashion, prioritising high-risk groups. It is equally vital to make an effective use of different platforms, including social media platforms, to improve the public's understanding of and confidence in the vaccines. In the long term, the government will need to work out the logistics of periodic vaccinations, strengthen medical-social networks in communities, elevate the role of family doctors and District Health Centres, and provide the public with accurate pandemic-related information consistently. Fighting Covid-19 is a long-haul challenge; support is needed at all levels.