From giving free eggs to blacklisting anti-vaxxers: China struggles to meet targets for voluntary vaccination

China faces an uphill task in meeting its target of vaccinating 40 per cent of its population by the end of June.
China faces an uphill task in meeting its target of vaccinating 40 per cent of its population by the end of June. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China has insisted that inoculations against Covid-19 are entirely voluntary, but various measures have suggested the reality of its massive national vaccination exercise is far more complex.

While the central authorities have called for an end to the heavy-handed measures, the country still faces an uphill task in meeting its target of vaccinating 40 per cent of its population, or about 560 million people, by the end of June.

As at Tuesday (April 13), over 175.6 million doses of various Covid-19 vaccines have been administered across China, the National Health Commission (NHC) announced.

With five vaccines having received emergency use approvals, China is now confident it has enough for its domestic needs, as well as to meet overseas sales and donation obligations.

But uptake has been less than enthusiastic. A survey by Peking University, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NHC found that only 23 per cent of respondents wanted to get inoculated as quickly as possible once the virus was under control, down from 58 per cent at the height of the outbreak last year.

To meet targets, China has mobilised its network of neighbourhood committees to knock on doors, encouraging citizens to sign up, while also rolling out a series of mobile vaccination clinics to facilitate efforts.

In a country where policies tend to be strictly enforced across the board - like the lockdowns early in the outbreak last year - giving citizens choice while setting ambitious targets have left officials somewhat confused.

Some local officials have gone to creative lengths such as offering free eggs or ice cream to those who get the jab or even going door to door helping the elderly book slots on their mobile phones.

Others such as officials in Wanning have threatened to blacklist unvaccinated individuals, preventing them from taking public transport.

Organisers of this weekend's Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan had insisted attendees must be vaccinated but later reversed their stance.

"In our work, we will adhere to the principle that those who want the vaccines will get them, and the spirit of voluntarism (in getting vaccinated)," said Mr Wu Liangyou, a senior NHC official at a press conference on Sunday.

In a commentary posted on social media, the Xinwen Lianbo flagship news bulletin of state broadcaster CCTV said that while the "one size fits all" approach might yield faster results, it is in fact "simple and crude", and reflects "insecurity".

"Some people say it's difficult to increase the vaccination rate without turning to a 'one size fits all' approach," said its anchor Bao Xiaofeng in a video posted on Weibo, referring to mandatory vaccination.

"The solution is to increase abilities (at promoting vaccination), and (the authorities) can crowdsource for ideas since sometimes, a good promotional slogan and a compassionate approach can do wonders," she added.

The country is also using social pressure as part of its arsenal.

Restaurants where at least 80 per cent of the staff have been vaccinated can put up a sign in their windows stating that, and at least three buildings in the capital's central business district, visited by The Straits Times, required separate registration for those without at least one dose of immunisation.

For many, part of the hesitation stems from a lack of information. None of China's five approved vaccines are on the World Health Organisation's list of emergency-use vaccines and vaccine makers in the country have not publicly released detailed data on vaccine efficacy.

A Covid-19 mobile vaccine clinic in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last week, the head of China's CDC Gao Fu also said there was a problem with low vaccine efficacy numbers, and suggested that scientists examine whether a combination of shots from two different makers could improve the numbers.

Preliminary data has suggested that they have an efficacy of somewhere between 50 per cent and 80 per cent.

Dr Gao later walked back his comments in an interview with state-run tabloid Global Times, saying it was "a complete misunderstanding".

"The protection rates of all vaccines in the world are sometimes high, and sometimes low," he said. "How to improve their efficacy is a question that needs to be considered by scientists around the world."