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China’s zero Covid strategy faces old age hurdle

Published on April 27, 2022

The overall vaccination rate in China stands at nearly 88 percent. But only about half of those over 80 and 48% of those over 60 have received two vaccinations

N Ahmad

As Chinese authorities are determined to adhere to the zero Covid policy in Shanghai, the elderly unvaccinated people are becoming a towering obstacle to easing Covid-19 restriction imposed on March 28.

Ten deaths of Covid -19 patients in Shanghai were reported on April 18 and April 19 causing panic in the city which has a low vaccination rate among provincial regions.

On April 19, Shanghai reported seven deaths among the elderly between 60 to 101 years old. All the deceased were unvaccinated and had underlying conditions. The new deaths took the city’s toll to 10 during the ongoing outbreak which has resulted in more than 300,000 infections since March.

Chinese media reports say fake news, misinformation and disinformation about the vaccination have prompted a large proportion of the elderly population to remain unvaccinated. Until March 2022, over 44 million people above the age of 60 years were unvaccinated in the country, according to the data of National Health Commission of China.  The vaccination rates are even lower in 80 year olds.

One of the fake news spread through WeChat had claimed the Covid19 vaccine can integrate with a person’s DNA and transform him into a “genetically modified human.”

Last year many research articles suggested that the elderly population is unwilling to vaccinate.

A paper “willingness to accept Covid-19 vaccine among elderly and the Chronic disease population in China” published by the National Library of Medicine had predicted the looming gap in the vaccination by the elderly population.  The report says that a cross-section field survey conducted between November 2020 and January 2021 among 7259 participants showed that the elderly were less likely to accept the “future Covid-19 vaccine” than adults.

A paper published by PLOS ONE journal in May 2021 reveals there was a willingness among the Chinese adult population to get the Covid-19 vaccine even if they had to pay for it. The paper titled, “Chinese consumers’ willingness to get a Covid-19 vaccine and willingness to pay for it” says it found that 79.41 percent of the respondents are willing to get vaccinated in China. The paper, however, added that the elderly, although at a high risk of infection, are less willing to get the shot and are not willing to pay for it.

The researchers have found that among the elderly a lack of trust and confidence in the vaccine was a common barrier to vaccination. Although some of the participants had previously been vaccinated against seasonal influenza, they held different perceptions of the COVID-19 vaccine. The elderly also viewed the COVID-19 shot as overly new, given that relatively few people had received it.

Many elders were worried about the safety of the vaccine, with side effects mentioned as the most common concern.

Once the vaccine was rolled out in March 2021, the elderly behaved the way the researchers had predicted. China prioritized people aged between 18 to 60 years, who were in service and were likely to get infected. Chinese health officials have been quoted by the media as saying that besides vaccine hesitancy, the country’s zero Covid environment and far lower Covid deaths became one of the reasons for the low uptake of vaccines among the elderly population.

The overall vaccination rate in China stands at nearly 88 percent. But only about half of those over 80 and 48% of those over 60 have received two vaccinations.

In the previous outbreaks, regions like Shanghai remained unscathed by the pandemic. However, on March 28, officials decided to lock down all of the city’s 25 million residents after the infection belatedly caught on.

China’s zero-covid policy has remained successful so far with many cities never reporting a case. Now with only 62 percent of Shanghai’s 3.6 million elderly – aged 60 and above – fully vaccinated,  the contagion in the city is unlikely to be reigned in anytime soon.