China rushes to vaccinate the elderly, but many are reluctant

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities are going door-to-door and paying people over the age of 60 to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But even as cases mount, 64-year-old Li Liansheng said his friends are alarmed by stories of fevers, blood clots and other side effects.

“When people learn about such incidents, they may not be willing to take vaccines,” said Li, who was vaccinated before contracting COVID-19. A few days after his 10-day bout with the virus, Li suffers from a sore throat and cough. He said he was like a “normal cold” with a slight fever.

China has joined other countries in treating cases instead of trying to eliminate transmission of the virus by abandoning or easing rules on testing, quarantines and movement as it seeks to reverse an economic crisis. But the change has flooded hospitals with feverish and panting patients.

The National Health Commission announced a campaign on Nov. 29 to increase the vaccination rate among older Chinese, which health experts say is crucial to avoiding a health crisis. It’s also the biggest obstacle before the ruling Communist Party can lift the latest of the world’s toughest antivirus restrictions.

China has kept the number of cases low for two years with a “zero-COVID” strategy that has cordoned off cities and confined millions to their homes. Now, as it backs away from this approach, it is addressing the widespread outbreaks other countries have already gone through.

The health commission recorded just six COVID-19 fatalities this month, bringing the country’s official toll to 5,241. This is despite multiple reports from families of relatives dying.

China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 toll, a health official said last week. This unusually narrow definition excludes many deaths that other countries would attribute to COVID-19.

Experts have predicted 1 to 2 million deaths in China by the end of 2023.

Li, who was exercising in the leafy Temple of Heaven park in central Beijing, said he is considering getting a second booster because of the hype: ‘As long as we know the vaccine won’t cause big side effects , we should take it.”

Neighborhood committees that form the lowest level of government have been ordered to find everyone aged 65 and over and keep track of their health. They are doing what state media call the “ideological job” of lobbying residents to get elderly relatives to get vaccinated.

In Beijing, the Chinese capital, the Liulidun neighborhood promises over 60s up to 500 yuan ($70) to receive a two-dose vaccination course and a booster.

The National Health Commission announced Dec. 23 that the number of people vaccinated daily had more than doubled to 3.5 million nationwide. But that’s still a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of injections that were being administered every day in early 2021.

Older people are discouraged by the potential side effects of Chinese-made vaccines, for which the government has not announced test results in people aged 60 and over.

Li said a 55-year-old friend suffered a fever and blood clots after being vaccinated. He said they can’t be sure if the stroke was to blame, but his friend is reluctant to take another one.

“The virus is also said to keep mutating,” Li said. “How do we know if the vaccines we take are helpful?”

Some are reluctant because they have diabetes, heart problems and other health complications, despite warnings from experts that it’s even more urgent for them to get vaccinated because the risks of COVID-19 are more serious than the vaccine’s potential side effects in almost everyone.

A 76-year-old man who takes his daily walk around the Temple of Heaven with the aid of a cane said he wants to be vaccinated but has diabetes and high blood pressure. The man, who would only give his last name, Fu, said he wears masks and tries to avoid crowds.

Older people also felt little urgency because low case numbers before the latest wave meant little risk of infection. That earlier lack of infections, however, has left China with few people who have developed antibodies to the virus.

“Now, the families and relatives of elderly people should make it clear to them that an infection can cause serious illness and even death,” said Jiang Shibo of the medical school of Fudan University in Shanghai.

More than 90 percent of people in China have been vaccinated, but only about two-thirds of those over 80, according to the National Health Commission. According to the 2020 census, China has 191 million people aged 65 and over, a group that alone would be the eighth most populous country, ahead of Bangladesh.

“Coverage rates for people over the age of 80 still need to be improved,” said Shanghai-based newspaper The Paper. “The elderly are at high risk.”

Du Ming’s son arranged for the centenarian to be vaccinated, according to his caretaker, Li Zhuqing, who was pushing a mask-clad Du through a park in a wheelchair. Li agreed with this approach because none of the family members were infected, meaning they would be more likely to bring the disease to Du’s home if they were exposed.

Health officials have refused requests from reporters to visit vaccination centres. Two who briefly entered the centers were ordered to leave when employees discovered who they were.

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AP researcher Yu Bing and video producers Olivia Zhang and Wayne Zhang contributed.

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