Last week, the number of people reserving spots to get a COVID-19 vaccine spiked with the highest numbers for both vaccines, Sinovac and BioNTech, in over a month. With acceptance rates in the doldrums in the previous month or two, the increase was welcome given that only about 20 percent of Hong Kong’s population has received even one dose of the two-dose regimen.
Reasons for the slow uptake in Hong Kong compared to many developed countries are many. One reason is the exceedingly low infection rate, which, unlike places where the infection rates are high, lends little impetus to get a jab. Other reasons include concerns about side effects from the vaccine and “a lack of confidence in the government”.
Among these reasons, the concern about side effects brings to mind interesting parallels with the recent surge in those willing to get the vaccine. While the media has reported several cases of illness of those receiving the vaccine, no deaths have been attributed to it among those 1-million-plus recipients in Hong Kong. Thus, the numbers indicate, at least in terms of short-term effects, the vaccine is exceedingly low-risk, especially when compared to the risk one takes in catching COVID-19, whose rate of illness, hospitalization and death is relatively high.
Returning to that recent huge increase in the numbers getting a jab after a lengthy lull, the reason appears to be the newly announced rewards being offered. As an incentive to those who are reluctant to be vaccinated, the Sino Group, Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation and Chinese Estates Holdings announced a lucky draw lottery grand prize of a new 449-square-foot flat in Kwun Tong for those who were vaccinated. The possibility of winning one of 20 HK$100,000 (US$12,900) prizes was also thrown in to encourage the vaccine shy.
Humans often make poor decisions when assessing probabilities, but this is nothing to grieve about. Rather, it’s best to take advantage of it. Given the still low local uptake for the vaccine, the Hong Kong government should reassess its present refusal to offer a monetary incentive to those who have so far refused to get the vaccine
Thus, a certain number of those who were motivated to receive a vaccine because of the chance to win a new flat were almost certainly among those who were also reluctant to get the jab due to fears about adverse side effects. Clearly, degrees of probability enter into both decisions; that is, their initial refusal and later willingness. However, in both cases, the odds of serious illness or winning a prize upon getting the shot are extremely long. Therefore, logically, if probabilities are examined solely in terms of numbers, those who refused to be vaccinated because of fears of serious side effects should also have considered their remote chances of winning in the draw (in the hundreds of thousands to one) and decided to stick with their decision not to get the jab. Yet despite this assumed contradiction, probably a considerable number of initial refusers were persuaded by the prize.
Clearly, the logic here, which compares the probability of illness and death against the odds of winning a new flat, is not completely fair. When matters associated with survival are concerned, you have to be more prudent about your decisions than when you take a punt. On the other hand, some of those former vaccine refusers who were lured by the prize may have been willing to discard their old beliefs, or at least throw their previous “caution” to the wind.
The dodgy logic described here is certainly not confined to Hong Kong. In the state of Ohio in the United States, the chance to win one of five US$1 million prizes is being offered with impressive results. After the lottery was announced, shots increased 49 percent among people older than 16. Although US$5 million may seem like a lot of money to get people to do their civic duty, the savings due to the reduced rate of hospitalization and death can make up for it and more. Other states have now noted Ohio’s success and instituted lotteries of their own.
Humans often make poor decisions when assessing probabilities, but this is nothing to grieve about. Rather, it’s best to take advantage of it. Given the still low local uptake for the vaccine, the Hong Kong government should reassess its present refusal to offer a monetary incentive to those who have so far refused to get the vaccine. During a pandemic, all methods to increase vaccine uptake should be on the table, even if they exploit frailties of the mind.
The author is a commentator on local social and environmental issues.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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