China targets older people in Covid-19 vaccination drive

Chinese health officials have announced a drive to accelerate vaccinations of older people against Covid-19, as police patrolled major cities to stamp out protests against the country’s strict zero-Covid policy.

The low vaccination rate among older people is one of the major hurdles to easing the zero-Covid policy, which has eroded economic growth, disrupted the lives of millions, and sparked three days of unprecedented protests.

At a regular press conference on Tuesday, officials said just 76.6% of people over 80 had received two vaccine doses, compared with more than 90% of the general population, and only 65.8% had received a booster jab.

The National Health Commission (NHC) said it would target more vaccinations at people older than 80, and reduce to three months the gap between basic vaccination and booster shots for elderly people.

Under a new plan for “strengthening coronavirus vaccination of the elderly”, the National Health Commission (NHC) said it would target more vaccinations at people older than 80 and reduce to three months the gap between basic vaccination and booster shots for elderly people.

Local authorities were ordered to improve vaccine promotion and delivery to older age groups, who have been far more averse to vaccination than younger generations. Some individuals who have refused vaccination would start having to explain why, officials said.

China has not yet approved mRNA vaccines, proven to be more effective, for public use. Health experts have expressed fears that lifting the zero-Covid policy while swathes of the population remain not fully immunised could overwhelm China’s healthcare system.

China logged 38,421 domestic infections on Tuesday, slightly down from record highs seen over the weekend and low when compared with caseloads seen in western countries during the height of the pandemic.

One official acknowledged “the problems reported by the people recently”, which he blamed on the implementation of government policies at the local level rather than the policies themselves.

A heavy police presence and arrests appeared to have deterred protesters in many cities on Tuesday. Videos on social media, which could not be independently verified, showed hundreds of police occupying a large public square in the city of Hangzhou on Monday night, preventing people from congregating.

In Shanghai and Beijing, police could be seen on Tuesday morning still patrolling areas of the cities where some groups on the Telegram social media app had suggested people should gather again.

There were reports of police asking people for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by weekend protesters. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s internet.

People were also sharing instructions on Telegram about how to keep phone data safe from random police checks, including apps or settings to quickly clear data. “What to do if your phone is stolen or taken by the police – this little guide may prevent unpleasant situations down the road,” one message read.

In Shanghai, near a site of weekend protests, bar staff told the AFP news agency they had been ordered to close at 10pm local time for “disease control”. Small clusters of officers stood outside each metro exit.

Throughout the day, AFP journalists saw officers detaining four people, later releasing one. “The atmosphere tonight is nervy. There are so many police around,” a man in his early 30s said as evening fell.

A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of north-west China’s Xinjiang region, was the catalyst for the wave of outrage, with protesters blaming Covid restrictions for hampering rescue efforts – claims the government has denied.

Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report

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