In Beijing, people who have been vaccinated are entitled to buy-in-one-free ice cream cones. In northern Gansu Province, a county government published a 20-stanza poem extolling the virtues of the jab. In the southern city of Wancheng, officials warned parents that if they refuse to be vaccinated, their children’s education and future jobs and housing are all at risk.
China is deploying a mix of tactics, some enticing and others threatening, to achieve mass vaccination on a staggering scale: a target of 560 million people, or 40% of its population, by the end of June.
China has already proven how effectively it can mobilize against the coronavirus. And other countries have achieved widespread vaccination, albeit in much smaller populations.
But China faces a number of challenges. The country’s near total control over the coronavirus has left many residents in no rush to get vaccinated. Some are wary of the history of vaccine scandals in China, fearing that the lack of transparency around Chinese coronavirus vaccines has done little to appease. Then there is the size of the population to be inoculated.
To achieve this, the government turned to a familiar toolbox: a sprawling and quickly mobilized bureaucracy and its sometimes authoritarian approach. This top-down and total response helped tame the virus early on, and now authorities hope to replicate that success with vaccinations.
Already, adoption has skyrocketed. Over the past week, China has administered an average of around 4.8 million doses per day, up from around one million per day for much of the last month. Experts said they hope to reach 10 million a day to meet the June target.
“They say it’s voluntary, but if you don’t get the vaccine, they’ll keep calling you,” said Annie Chen, a student at Peking University who received two of these pleas from a counselor. school in about a week.
Concerned about the possible side effects, Ms. Chen had not planned to register. But after the counselor warned that she could soon face restrictions on access to public places, she gave in – in part because she felt bad for him. “The advisor also seemed to think his job was quite difficult. He looked exhausted, ”she said.
Public anxiety about vaccines started early. A survey in February, co-authored by the head of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found that less than half of medical workers in eastern Zhejiang province were willing to be vaccinated, with many citing fear side effects. As of mid-March, China had administered only about 65 million doses to a population of 1.4 billion.
Even with the recent vaccine surge, China still lags far behind dozens of other countries. Although China has approved five local vaccines, it has administered 10 vaccines per 100 people. Great Britain administered 56 percent; United States, 50.
Prominent doctors have warned that China’s slow pace threatens to undermine the country’s successful containment measures.
“China is at a very critical time,” Zhong Nanshan, a leading respiratory disease expert, said in a recent interview with Chinese media. “When other countries have been vaccinated very well and China still does not have immunity, then it will be very dangerous.”
The warnings were accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign and copious consumerist bait.
On Monday, Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district was teeming with great deals for those vaccinated. A Lego store offered a free kit to assemble a chick emerging from an egg. A street stall touted a 10 percent reduction on tea. A state-run photo studio even announced a reduction on wedding photos.
The promotion appeared to be working at a vaccination center, where people lined up for a two-for-one sweet service in a bright yellow McDonald’s ice cream truck parked outside.
Wang Xuan, an employee inside the truck, described how the advertisement caught the attention of a passerby.
“He went straight inside to get the vaccine and then came to buy us some ice cream,” Wang said.
Other communities have opted for more sticks than carrots (or ice cream).
In Chongqing, a company notice ordered workers between the ages of 18 and 59 with no underlying health problems to be vaccinated before the end of April, or to be “held accountable”, although it did not. did not specify. A government bulletin in Haikou City, Hainan, said businesses with an immunization rate below 85% would receive a warning and could be suspended for “rectification.”
The town of Ruili in southwest China last week became the first to adopt compulsory vaccination for eligible residents, after a small outbreak there. An official said the city expected to immunize the entire population of more than 200,000 people in five days by running round-the-clock vaccination sites.
Some social media users have complained that lobbying campaigns restrict their right of choice. But Tao Lina, a vaccination expert and former immunologist at the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said it was justified to impose somewhat punitive measures in the name of public health.
“At the moment, overstating freedom of choice is not a good idea,” said Dr Tao. “Look at America: they wanted to choose not to wear a face mask. It seems like a kind of freedom, but what happened next?
Governments and businesses in other countries have also adopted what some see as coercive measures. The Italian Prime Minister recently issued a decree requiring the vaccination of health workers. A waitress in New York has been fired for refusing the vaccination. Many countries are considering issuing vaccine passports for entry into public facilities.
Yet even Chinese state media have acknowledged that some local officials have been overzealous in their enforcement.
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, published an opinion piece last week denouncing “universal, simple and crass methods” which it said could spark even more public opposition.
“These harmful developments are actually the product of a small number of regions and companies concerned with meeting their immunization responsibilities,” he said. (The Wancheng government later apologized for its warning about the future of children.)
It is not known how many of the promised restrictions are applied. Wu Kunzhou, a community worker in Haikou, the city where businesses were threatened with suspension, said he marked a few businesses with red posters. “Company that does not meet vaccination standards,” say the posters. But there was no accompanying fine and he said he couldn’t force anyone to be vaccinated.
“The main thing is that there are orders from above,” Wu said.
Some residents remained firmly opposed to the vaccination, despite the barrage of messages.
Lu Xianyun, a 51-year-old construction industry worker in Guangzhou, cited a number of revelations in recent years about Chinese children being injected with faulty vaccines. “I don’t trust them,” he said of the vaccine makers.
Local authorities have also issued conflicting guidelines on immunization safety for pregnant women. Some reassured women who were trying to conceive that they should enroll, while others urged these women to delay their pregnancy.
Dr Tao said officials had not done enough to build public confidence in the vaccines. He said he could think of only one senior official, Dr Zhang Wenhong – often compared to Dr Anthony S. Fauci of China – who had been publicly vaccinated. It doesn’t help that Chinese vaccine companies were slow to share clinical trial data.
“If our country wants to improve the enthusiasm of the public,” said Dr Tao, “it would be better to share videos of Communist Party leaders, cadres and members getting vaccinated.”
Liu Yi, Joy Dong, and Elsie Chen contributed to the research.