How do you keep a country of 1.4 billion people protected from a return of Covid-19? That’s the question facing the authorities in China as the pandemic drags into its second year. Thus far the initial epicentre of the virus has managed to keep the numbers of deaths and infections low, thanks to a combination of draconian lockdowns and border closures, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing. But now the effort is intensifying in the next stage of the response – mass vaccination – as a means to reopen areas like international travel.
The problem is that many Chinese don’t feel the urgency to get vaccinated. They aren’t as worried about getting ill because the infection rates are so low. Only 12 new Covid cases were reported on Monday. Others worry about the safety of the vaccines on offer, in part because they were developed so quickly.
Thus far China has administered 170 million doses of vaccine, across four vaccines approved for general use. All are domestically made, with the three most commonly deployed requiring double shots.
Currently there is no data available for the number of people who have received both shots. But the government says that it wants to vaccinate 40% of the adult population, or 560 million people, by the end of June. China’s state media says that the vaccine manufacturers in the country have all increased manufacturing capacity, with an aim to inoculate 70-80% of citizens between the end of this year and the middle of next year.
The general line from the health ministry in Beijing is that vaccination is voluntary. In bigger cities people can sign up on an app and head to their nearest vaccination centre. In other places they must wait to be called up by their employer or local community centre.
To encourage people to get the jab, local governments are sweetening the deal by offering free food, shopping vouchers, bus tickets and even small amounts of cash. For example, in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, pensioners who have received both jabs can claim 2.5kg of fresh eggs.
Others have enjoyed discounts on ice cream and even wedding photos, the New York Times reported.
The tactics appear to be having some success, with administered jabs rising from about a million a day in late March to just under five million daily now. But the rate will have to double again for China to meet its targets.
“Herd immunity is the key to returning to normal,” urges Guangming Daily. “China should avoid being left behind and becoming an easy target for the virus.”
There are, however, reports of complaints from people who have been pressured to get vaccinated. Some employers have threatened to terminate the contracts of those staff reluctant to have the jab, while some schools are saying they will only accept students from vaccinated families.
One city in Hainan even threatened to blacklist unvaccinated people, preventing them from using public transport or from receiving state benefits. Even in places where the threats aren’t so explicit, residents have complained about endless calls from their local community office encouraging them to take the vaccine.
“In the end you just give in to the pressure,” admitted one Beijing resident who was hesitant at first about getting vaccinated.
Although they aren’t as sceptical about vaccinations as some other nations, some Chinese are wary, citing a spate of recent scandals involving out-of-date injections. Others query the speed at which Covid vaccines have been developed, wondering if they have been tested sufficiently.
There is also evidence to suggest that China’s three main vaccines are less effective than other foreign-made ones, although they still meet World Health Organisation thresholds.
The vaccines from Sinopharm and Sinovac all deploy inactivated forms of the Sars-COV2 virus. Another treatment from CanSino uses an adenovirus vector platform like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. A further Chinese vaccine called ARCoV will start late-stage clinic trials next month, state media said on Tuesday. ARCoV is the first domestic vaccine to rely on mRNA messenger technology, the same platform used by the Pfizer-Biontech and the Moderna jabs.
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