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Saturday, Sep 30, 2023

Hong Kong must embrace softer sciences to improve pandemic response

Hong Kong must embrace softer sciences to improve pandemic response

The city’s experts in virology and infectious disease are well-versed in their fields, but they alone can’t offer perspective on mental health and human psychology or weigh potential consequences of public health policies.
If the West is any guide, then as pandemic measures continue to unwind, there will soon be a time when the draconian restrictions of Covid-19 seem like a strange, distant memory. Families separated by borders will breathe a sigh of relief, and there will be a desire to forget a period of history that left many feeling exhausted.

Research last month from University of Hong Kong scholars concluded that pandemic fatigue was a factor in the severity of Hong Kong’s fourth wave and that it might otherwise have been 14 per cent smaller. Decreased motivation to comply with social measures was attributed to months of relentless pandemic vigilance.

The authors of the study recommended the use of “incentives instead of penalties” to reduce fatigue and “concise and respectful communication with the general public”. They also cited a 2020 report from the World Health Organization into the worldwide problem of pandemic fatigue that advised investing in a better understanding of social concerns.

To observers of the city’s media, it likely would not be a surprise to hear Hong Kong underutilised the behavioural and social sciences in pandemic policy. When comment on evolving lockdown policies and vaccine passes was needed, the city’s experts in virology and infectious disease were called upon for comment, not social scientists and psychologists.

The primary concern for virologists is minimising outbreaks, and while they might be public health experts, their focus is communicable disease and micro-organisms. They are less likely to be in a position to offer a well-versed perspective on mental health, social welfare and human psychology or weigh potential unintended consequences of particular public health policies.

Elsewhere, while the UK might have been behind with some aspects of its pandemic efforts, it gave considerable weight to the behavioural sciences. This was seen in the presence of a behavioural insights group on the government’s SAGE advisory panel, co-chaired by a social psychologist.

Meanwhile, Oxford University psychologists conducted a 2020 study into demographics with vaccine hesitancy, helping the government tailor its vaccine roll-out and messaging.

Hong Kong has avoided citywide lockdowns. However, conflicting messaging, surprise lockdowns on building estates and jarring measures such as wrapping outdoor playgrounds in mountains of tape would surely unsettle psychologists charged with maintaining population well-being amid social distancing.

In March, the mental health charity Mind HK surveyed the possible impact of the fifth wave on the city’s mental health. A few months later, the government expanded its Covid-19 Expert Advisory Panel and appointed a total of six health experts.

This might have been an opportunity to take inspiration from the interdisciplinary advisory panels in other countries and fill gaps in behavioural science highlighted by low vaccine uptake in elders. Instead, not one expert outside the fields of infectious disease and immunology was added.

One explanation for the predominance of virology in public health policy is institutional. The primary pipeline for expertise is the city’s universities, and both the HKU and Chinese University public health programmes sit within medical schools and appear to have little collaboration with psychology or social science faculties.

The effects of this can be seen in academia itself. In a recently released list of top global researchers, 38 HKU academics were credited among the top 1 per cent of cited researchers. Of these, 24 were from the Faculty of Medicine and just two from the Faculty of Social Sciences. No Chinese University social scientists were recognised.

The city’s medical schools deserve great credit for their contributions to global health. Yet, limited recognition for the social sciences during a period with extraordinary effects on daily life might raise some questions for public health advocates.

In the community, Hong Kong has associations of doctors, nurses and psychologists. However, besides modest social groups of university public health alumni, the city lacks independent public health associations capable of facilitating the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas needed to provide a balanced perspective on policy issues that cross academic lines.

The city’s public health community has an opportunity to address this gap. The strength of medical and virology expertise in its universities suggest Hong Kong can continue to assert itself as a world leader in pandemic preparedness.

Yet if the city wants to also provide future leadership in pandemic response, it likely needs to grasp the opportunity to expand beyond academia and embrace the softer sciences.

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