China wants higher vaccination rate among seniors, but hesitant people say Beijing is too pushy

Society & Culture

They are not exactly anti-vaxxers because many of them seem to have had COVID shots themselves, but a large group of Chinese people took to social media to complain about a government campaign announced today to vaccinate China’s senior citizens, and warn (with no evidence) of side effects.

A COVID-19 vaccination site at a park in Beijing. “People 60 and older get freebies after receiving booster shots,” the banner reads. Kyodo via Reuters Connect.

Nearly nine months after China started offering COVID-19 vaccines to seniors aged 60 and above, about 50 million people in this age group remain unvaccinated. Chinese health authorities today announced a new drive to push more older adults to get inoculated. Yet the calls were met with hesitancy and outright opposition from many families with seniors, who cited concerns about side effects as their main reason for reluctance. 

In a press conference held on November 30, Zhèng Zhōngwěi 郑忠伟, the head of medical science development at the National Health Commission, said (in Chinese) that seniors would be his top priority in the next phase of China’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, as data showed that the percentage of its over-60 population that was inoculated was lower than other countries like Japan and U.S. 

According to the government’s latest estimate, nearly 80% of those 60 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. But that was not good enough, said Zheng. As of this week, there are still about 50 million seniors who have yet to get a dose of the vaccine, a population that’s almost the size of South Korea. 

In some provinces, rates for those over age 70 are below 50%, with some areas only managing to get 30% of their over-80 population vaccinated. By comparison, over 90% of Chinese students between the ages of 12 and 17, who were eligible for inoculation from July, have been fully vaccinated.

With seniors at far higher risk for severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, Zheng warned that unvaccinated individuals in this vulnerable population would pose a serious risk to China’s recovery as the new Omicron variant of coronavirus spreads.

“If we don’t accelerate the vaccination drive for those 50 million people now, they will cause a huge societal problem when an outbreak occurs again. If this epidemic continues, our medical resources will be overwhelmed,” Zheng said. “It’s imperative that we put a stop to COVID deaths and new cases.”

While Zheng didn’t pinpoint specifically why many seniors were inclined to roll up their sleeves, he spent a sizable chunk of his speech assuring the public of the vaccine’s safety for older adults, including those with underlying medical conditions. According to Zheng, China has delivered over 500 million homegrown vaccines to people aged 60 and over around the world, which have collectively exhibited a “good” degree of safety in this high-risk population. He added that among all recipients of Chinese-made vaccines, the frequency of systemic adverse events was higher in the younger age group than in the older age group. 

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Despite being a global laggard in early stages of COVID vaccine administration and distribution, in 2021, China’s inoculation efforts picked up speed at a rate that has been unmatched elsewhere. In September, the National Health Commission announced that the country had hit a major milestone of fully vaccinating 1 billion of its 1.41 billion citizens against coronavirus, or over 70% of its entire population, compared with 54% in the U.S. and 62.3% in the European Union. 

As one of the world’s few “COVID-zero” holdouts, China has relied on closed borders, abrupt lockdowns, and compulsory testing to curb sporadic virus flare-ups across the country, at a time when most other countries are gradually reopening international borders and learning to live with the virus. But although top officials have indicated that China would not abandon its playbook anytime soon, many health experts believe that it’s unrealistic to expect zero outbreaks in the months to come. 

With the Omicron variant threatening to wreak havoc on the unvaccinated masses, it made perfect sense that the Chinese government highlighted a new sense of urgency about vaccination efforts during its Tuesday press briefing. But Zheng’s message, which singled out seniors, led many Chinese social media users to respond that they preferred older members in their families to remain unvaccinated because they worried about unexpected or life-threatening side effects. 

On Weibo, the feedback was so negative that China News Service had to turn off comments on posts about the news. Using the hashtag “China has roughly 50 million unvaccinated seniors” #中国有约5000万老人未接种新冠疫苗#, which so far has been viewed 84 million times on the site, some Weibo users shared stories of older adults they knew who passed away after getting jabbed, suggesting a correlation between vaccination and death without providing any medical evidence. 

In one post (in Chinese), a Weibo user named Wǔguō Xiǎo Bàwáng Chessy @武锅小霸王Chessy, who has over 1.2 million followers on the platform, wrote that her grandfather died from cerebral infarction about two weeks after his second dose of the COVID vaccine. His passing, the author implied, was somehow linked to the vaccination because he had been generally healthy except for irregular heart rates from time to time.

“I don’t know if my grandfather’s death was actually caused by the vaccination. But I think for seniors who don’t go out often and have medical conditions like cerebrovascular disease, wearing masks and washing hands diligently are enough to protect them from the virus,” she wrote. “I support the prevention work, but officials should release trustworthy statistics on such studies before calling on people to get vaccinated.”

Others said that the vaccination drive targeting seniors was the latest example of the inconsistency between the central government’s promises to keep shots voluntary and numerous instances of compelled vaccination. Some pointed out that while China’s Ministry of Education explicitly banned vaccine mandates for students, many local authorities still asked children and their parents to be inoculated as a requirement for returning to school. 

The aggressive approach, they said, indicated the extreme lengths officials were willing to go in order to accomplish the goal of reaching herd immunity, a strategy that they said showed little respect for the interest of individuals. “Apparently for some people, all they care about is a number. But what they don’t know is that there are real lives behind numbers. Please stop doing this,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).