I was midway through lunch with some friends when I got the call: “Hello, I’m with your residential committee. Want to get vaccinated?”
Oddly, the group had been in the middle of a discussion on the merits of vaccination when I’d picked up. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t such a coincidence. Vaccinations were one of the hottest topics in China last month, as the country ramped up efforts to expand its underwhelming vaccination numbers.
The person on the other end of the phone assured me that I could get my shot without leaving my neighborhood, and that there was no need to wait in line. “Uhh… fine,” I finally replied, more out of civility than enthusiasm. I’m not an anti-vaxxer; like many Chinese, the only reason I hadn’t gotten the shot was because I didn’t want to deal with all the hassle.
“Then just tell me when works best for you! Is tomorrow convenient? The day after is fine as well! Or perhaps now?” The chipper voice on the other line was starting to feel a bit oppressive, but I made an appointment for 8:30 the next morning, saying I would stop by after dropping my kids off at school.
“Great!” the woman replied, before asking if I wanted to bring my parents along for good measure. Finally, the call ended, but as I returned to my lunch, my mind was preoccupied by the noise of China’s state machinery rumbling to life. All things considered, it sounded cheerier than I expected.
It’s no secret that China’s vaccination campaign has been slow going. Although it has given out more than 280 million shots as of May 6, that is far from enough to achieve herd immunity in a country of 1.4 billion, especially when the vaccinations approved for use here all require two doses to be effective.
Experts have expressed anxiety at the rollout’s slow start. In late March, Zhang Wenhong, the head of the infectious disease department at the prestigious Huashan Hospital in Shanghai and a star of China’s anti-coronavirus campaign, weighed in with a characteristically blunt assessment. “The developed countries are currently completing vaccinations quickly, and they will reopen once they have finished,” he declared at a press conference in the central city of Wuhan. “If the United States, the EU, and Japan reopen, but our country continues to be closed off, the impact on the economy and the public psyche will be far greater than the damage caused by the pandemic. And when our country is reopened (to international travelers), Chinese who have not yet been vaccinated will suffer and will be worried wherever they go.”
What’s behind the lagging figures? Ironically enough, the country may be the victim of its own success against the pandemic. To paraphrase Laozi, good can come from ill, and ill from good: After bringing a devastating outbreak under control in early 2020, China basically returned to normal last spring. Now many Chinese, absent the pressure of ongoing community transmission, are in no rush to go get vaccinated, even if it puts them at risk later.
More surprising, however, is the Chinese government’s relatively lassez faire approach to vaccinations, at least so far. After a year in which the state adopted whatever “hardcore” measures it deemed necessary to eliminate outbreaks before they could spread, it has largely left the work of vaccinations in the hands of grassroots workers like the residential committee member who contacted me last month.
Curious what life is like for the so-called grid workers tasked with getting China vaccinated, I reached out to Su Rong, a friend of mine and an influential party secretary of a residential committee in Shanghai. She explained to me that most of the vaccine hesitancy she’s encountered in her work is based on cold calculation, rather than fear.
“People who are reluctant to get vaccinated have different reasons. Some are afraid of the risks or side effects, some doubt the quality of domestic vaccines, and many of them are just being selfish,” Su said. According to her, many residents simply calculate that, to achieve herd immunity, not everyone needs to get the vaccine. Without an outbreak or public pressure, they would prefer others get the shot while they put it off as long as they can. There’s also concern that new mutations of the coronavirus will make the current vaccines less useful in the long run, and they see little point in being vaccinated for nothing.
A woman shows her registration code to a volunteer (in green) while standing in line at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Shanghai, April 3, 2021. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/People Visual
The work of Su and other community staff doesn’t end with convincing people to take the shot, either, and this is where China’s vaccination campaign may have an edge over those run by other nations. These workers schedule residents for vaccinations, coordinate with sites to minimize waiting times, accompany residents to get their shots, and sometimes even provide them with water and snacks. Then they do it all again for the second shot, while also making sure that residents’ appointed site has the same vaccine the second day as the first. At a time when developed countries are struggling to get people back for their second dose of the vaccine — whether by design, as in the U.K., or just a lack of urgency or awareness — Su and her colleagues at the grassroots level of society are helping China avoid falling into the same trap.
It’s exhausting work, but it does make everything that much easier for residents. When I got my shot, I was met at a nearby intersection by the woman who had called me, who then walked me down to the vaccination site. Within five minutes of arriving, I was finished and relaxing in the observation room.
Still, sitting there, I couldn’t help but wonder if this gentle, upbeat approach could really get China to herd immunity. Mobilizing community workers to get people vaccinated certainly results in a pleasant, personalized process, but the side effect is a patchwork of initiatives and incentives, and not all community workers are equally well trained and experienced.
The approaches communities across the country are using to boost vaccination rates can range from the well-intentioned to the curious or even unprofessional. Some cities are giving away eggs, oil, soap, and other necessities as rewards. At Beijing’s Baiyun Temple vaccination site, people may visit the temple for free with their vaccination voucher, where they can rub the temple’s famous stone monkey reliefs. Walk down the streets in Shanghai and you’ll likely hear at least one loudspeaker blaring an offer for vaccinations like the city’s running a clearance sale: “Free shots! Come and get them!” Elsewhere in the city, the famous girl group SNH48 is offering fans who agree to get vaccinated at their dedicated event space a unique stamp from group members in place of pre-pandemic activities like handshake sessions.
Details of a poster for a vaccination event organized by the girl idol group SNH48. From Weibo
These promotions are harmless, and some are almost touching, but are they really effective?
My musings were interrupted when two delivery couriers sitting next to me in the room asked the volunteers on duty if they could leave before their mandatory 30-minute post-shot observation period was over. After being told they would have to wait, the pair returned to their seats, looking anxious. We struck up a conversation, and they explained that their delivery company requires them to pick up every order within an hour of it being placed. They couldn’t afford to sit in a room doing nothing for 30 minutes.
When their 30 minutes had passed, they jumped up and shot out of the room like arrows, leaving me sitting in stunned silence. It was another irony. Some of us have the ability to wait around and debate the merits of various vaccines. Others, like the delivery drivers who kept the country running in the depths of the COVID-19 outbreak last year, don’t have that luxury. They run some of the highest risks of infection of anyone, yet we can’t even give them 35 minutes to get vaccinated. Instead we drag our feet and moan about the inconvenience.
Before I followed them out the door, I took a picture of the observation room and sent it to a friend who I knew still hadn’t been vaccinated. “I just got it and it’s fine,” I added in a text. “You should go and get it, too.”
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: People stand in line outside a Covid-19 vaccination center for foreign nationals in Shanghai, April 3, 2021. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/People Visual)