China is ramping up its COVID-19 vaccination push, aiming to be twice as fast as the U.S. by pressuring Communist Party members, bank workers and college staff to get shots, as the lagging rollout threatens to undermine the advantage it secured by effectively wiping out the virus.
The inoculation effort has been stepped up markedly in recent weeks, with China now administering an average of 5 million doses a day from less than a million at the start of the year. While a significant increase, that translates to 5 doses for every 100 people, compared to 25 in the U.S. and 56 in Israel, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.
Like other countries in the Asia Pacific region that have quashed the coronavirus, China is facing significant hurdles in its vaccination drive, as people don’t see the same urgent need to get inoculated as those in places still battling COVID-19. However, the prospect of other countries — particularly geopolitical rivals like the U.S. — achieving herd immunity and reopening their economies and borders sooner is hardening the resolve to speed up vaccinations in China.
“It will challenge the success of China’s COVID response if developed countries are reopening to each other and China still tries to contain the virus from coming in,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University.
The Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control upped its vaccination target earlier this month, and now aims to get as many as 560 million people, or 40% of its vast population, injected by the end of June. That means China will need to give out some 460 million doses in the next three months — more than two times as much as the goal stated by U.S. President Joe Biden for roughly the same timespan.
Just as some in the U.S. are eligible for donuts after vaccination, part of China’s approach to get people to vaccinate involves dishing out freebies.
One poster in downtown Beijing, for example, says that residents over 60 are eligible for a basket of eggs after getting vaccinated. The city’s Daxing district, home to major technology companies, is luring residents by offering shopping coupons. On one such voucher, slogans encourage people to heed the call to get vaccinated in order to secure the ultimate COVID victory.
Accompanying the accelerated rollout is also a hardening propaganda campaign that increasingly links vaccination to maintaining national pride and China’s place on the world stage.
“Injecting the COVID vaccine is not simply an option, it is the responsibility and duty of every Chinese citizen,” according to a news anchor on a program broadcast on state broadcaster CCTV last week. “If we do not rely on vaccinations to consolidate our hard-earned strengths in fighting the virus, we could suddenly slide from commanding heights to troughs.” The news clip has been distributed widely by community workers on chat groups to convince people to get vaccinated.
To achieve its goals, China is calling on its 92 million Communist Party members, plus tens of millions of people employed at state-owned companies.
Some party members have been summoned to meetings where they have been told to get shots as soon as possible in order to set an example, according to people familiar with the matter. At one such meeting in Beijing, cadres were told they had to get vaccinated, unless they got a medical exemption.
Employees of at least three state-owned banks and at least one major university who would not speak on the record said that staff have been repeatedly urged to get vaccinated, and had to provide an official reason if they declined.
The information office of China’s State Council didn’t respond to requests for comment. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or SASAC, which oversees China’s government-run companies, didn’t immediately respond to a fax seeking comment.
“We’ve seen populations of entire cities queue up and be tested within a few days, and the same kind of infrastructure could be used for mass vaccination,” said Benjamin Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong.
Indeed, China has experience in getting vaccination on such a large scale accomplished in the past. In 2010, the government launched a measles inoculation blitz, giving out 100 million doses to children around the country in 10 days to quell a resurgence in the disease.
The question is whether the current approach, comprising small incentives and societal and peer pressure, can get China’s vaccination numbers sufficiently high enough in the face of widespread vaccine hesitancy.
Observers expect officials may need to escalate incentives, for example using punitive measure like restricting the movement of people who haven’t been inoculated.
Cowling said that the government could further link vaccination status with the existing health code system, which allows vaccinated people to travel more easily and perhaps be exempt from some quarantine policies.
Some local officials are already escalating measures: a city in Hainan province put out posters warning that if people didn’t get vaccinated they would be blacklisted, and barred from public transport, receiving government subsidies and other benefits. The city government later apologized for the harshness of the notice and rescinded the rules.
Lin Liwei, a 35-year-old migrant worker in Beijing, is waiting to receive her second dose of the vaccine. Lin fears that she wouldn’t be allowed to board a train to return home to Inner Mongolia if she isn’t inoculated.
“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re out,” said Lin.
For the time being, the government is still waiting to see how far the existing approach can get them in the vaccination drive, said Seton Hall’s Huang. It could ultimately move to make vaccines compulsory, as some other countries like Indonesia have done.
“I don’t think China would mind eventually making vaccination mandatory considering they have implemented far more draconian measures,” said Huang. “As long as you have the vaccine supply and the ability to widely administer shots, it won’t be a problem to make vaccination an obligation.”
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