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Vaccine hesitancy may hamper China's efforts to ease COVID restrictions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In China, days of angry street protests last month appear to have led to a change in the government's pandemic policy. Local authorities are easing requirements for mass testing, forced quarantines and strict lockdowns. But as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, Beijing may be facing another big challenge on the path to opening up fully.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In 2014, 34-year-old Tan Hua was bitten by a dog. She saw a doctor about it, and she was given a shot of what her mother says they were told was the best rabies vaccine on the market. But it didn't go well.

HUA XIUZHEN: (Through interpreter) That very night, she got a headache and dizziness. Her memory declined sharply. She had convulsions. She couldn't see. Everything was dark for her. She couldn't walk straight.

RUWITCH: That's 76-year-old Hua Xiuzhen, Tan's mother. She says they got emergency help, but Tan never fully recovered.

HUA: (Through interpreter) She's disabled. She can't work. She spends the whole day laying in bed.

RUWITCH: They blame the vaccine, and Hua's been on a crusade for justice ever since. Also, she won't go near vaccines again, including those for COVID-19.

HUA: (Through interpreter) I'm scared to think about it, and none of my neighbors have been vaccinated either, as far as I know.

RUWITCH: Vaccine hesitancy is real in China. Stories like Tan's are widely circulated. It's a hurdle that the government will have to overcome to minimize damage from the inevitable surge in cases that loosening COVID controls is expected to trigger. It wasn't always like this, according to Mary Brazelton, an expert in the history of science and medicine in China at the University of Cambridge.

MARY BRAZELTON: If you look at earlier periods in the People's Republic of China's history, then, you know, what you see is, in some ways, almost the opposite in terms of really strong vaccination programs that work quite hard to convince people, particularly elderly people, to receive vaccines against infectious diseases.

RUWITCH: But the breakneck economic growth of recent years coupled with lax oversight and corruption has led to a long string of product quality scandals, from baby formula cut with industrial chemicals to contaminated blood thinner to tainted vaccines.

BRAZELTON: That kind of helps explain the degrees of hesitancy.

RUWITCH: And it's not just the elderly who are wary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET JABBED QUICK")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Chinese).

RUWITCH: This rap song was put out last year by the Sichuan Provincial Government health authorities, urging all to hurry up and get the shot. Scientists say three doses of Chinese vaccines can effectively prevent serious illness, including among the elderly. But Yanzhong Huang, a China health care expert at Seton Hall University, says the government has done a bad job of messaging and debunking myths around the vaccine.

YANZHONG HUANG: Many of those vaccine skeptics actually are liberal-minded people (laughter). They just don't trust the Chinese vaccines and don't trust the government narrative on the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccines.

RUWITCH: Jerry, a real estate executive in Shanghai, is 33 years old and a pretty good example of that. He didn't want his full name used because of the sensitivity of the topic.

JERRY: Yeah, it's kind of a flu thing.

RUWITCH: It's a flu thing. That's what he thinks of COVID now. He hasn't gotten the vaccine, and he believes, despite science to the contrary, there's no point.

JERRY: I just think the virus is changing so fast, so not a single vaccine can help.

RUWITCH: And Jerry isn't alone. The government says that nearly 90% of people in the country have been vaccinated for COVID-19, but Jerry guesstimates that, among his friends, it may be as low as 60%. These are educated 30-somethings in China's most cosmopolitan city. The bigger shortfall, though, is with the elderly. There, the official vaccination rate is just north of 60%. Again, Yanzhong Huang.

HUANG: They still - they have not sent a clear message - right? - convincing the elderly that, you know, you need to get a vaccine. It's good for you.

RUWITCH: He says the government needs to create better incentives for people to get the vaccine and offer assurances of support in case something goes wrong. With restrictions easing and cases likely to rise, though, the authorities will have to act fast.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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