China calls on ‘inoculated little warriors’ in its war against Covid-19


As the rest of the world struggles to vaccinate adults in the face of the threat of a new variant of the coronavirus, China has embarked on an ambitious campaign that it says will offer the country better protection against Covid-19: a complete vaccination of 160 million of its youngest citizens by the end of the year.

The campaign – fueled in part by red flower stickers, balloons and boxes of toys for children who are becoming what nurses call “little vaccinated warriors” – got off to a quick start. In the first two weeks of the effort, which began in late October, 84 million boys and girls aged 3 to 11, about half of the eligible population, received the first of two injections, data shows. most recent government.

In contrast, in the United States, 2.6 million children aged 5 to 11, or about 10 percent of the eligible population, received a dose over roughly the same time.

The push is part of Beijing’s relentless march towards collective immunity, the point at which enough people are immune to the virus that it cannot spread among the general public. Less than three months before the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Chinese authorities are redoubling their efforts on this strategy. And with 1.1 billion adults already vaccinated, young people are seen as an important part of its success.

The campaign faces significant hurdles, including reluctance from parents in a country with a checkered history of childhood vaccine safety. The government insists that children’s vaccinations are voluntary, but parents described being pressured to have their children vaccinated.

When You Xun refused to have his 3-year-old son vaccinated in Ningde City, the boy was suddenly expelled from school. “Urgent notice! Urgent notice! Please parents of all babies who have not been vaccinated against Covid now come to kindergarten to bring your child home, ”the post read.

Many parents have rushed to get their sons and daughters vaccinated, fearing that they will not be allowed to go to school otherwise. Mr You and his wife decided not to do so, fearing the vaccine might not be safe for young people. After several days of kindergarten silence, he visited local authorities to complain about his son’s apparent eviction.

Officials told him that there were no rules prohibiting unvaccinated children from attending classes. So Mr. You brought his son back to school the next day. “From top to bottom, this is a disguised pressure campaign to impose vaccination,” he said.

Although Chinese vaccines are generally considered safe, the country also has a habit of administering spoiled vaccines and keeping any information about negative incidents.

In a scandal in 2018, hundreds of thousands of children may have received ineffective vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. And in 2013, 17 infants died after receiving a hepatitis B vaccine made in China. Although this vaccine has been widely used since, authorities moved quickly to silence critics.

Collective immunity is a goal that most countries have abandoned – especially with the emergence of new variants such as Omicron and Delta – but which China has made as a prerequisite for reopening its borders.

“Their hope is that by increasing the vaccination rate, it will give them the confidence to open up in the future,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.

Getting there will be difficult, in part because the country’s vaccines appear to be less effective than their Western competitors. Relying only on its current vaccines, “China is unlikely to strengthen this herd immunity,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped officials from working tirelessly to get vaccines into the arms of the country’s smallest citizens. Kindergarten teachers across the country have sent personal appeals urging parents to “hurry up” and get their students immunized. “Please answer the nationwide call to guide your child to take the initiative and actively get immunized,” an education office wrote in a public letter to parents.

In the eastern city of Hangzhou, the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and Beijing, kindergartens have sent out notices in private focus groups with parents suggesting vaccination is required, according to interviews and messages reviewed by The New York Times. Parents are often asked to respond publicly if their children have received an injection. If parents refuse, they are asked to provide in writing the reason why their child was not vaccinated.

Responding to a request for comment, officials from the education offices in Guangzhou and Ningde said that vaccination of children aged 3 to 11 was not mandatory. An official from the Guangzhou office said that no directive had been issued to prohibit unvaccinated children from going to school.

In June, China approved its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for use in children aged 3 to 17. But until the end of October, only children 12 and older were receiving injections, with the exception of at-risk children who were younger.

Although limited data has been provided, both vaccines have been approved based on phase 1 and 2 trials showing that they are safe for children. The National Health Commission said the safety and efficacy of the Chinese vaccine for young children “does not differ significantly” from that for older children and adults.

Still, some parents are worried.

On November 5, Nicolas Zhang received a message in the discussion group that he shares with other parents in his 5-year-old daughter’s kindergarten class in the southern city of Shenzhen. The school informed parents that their children should be vaccinated, Mr. Zhang said. He and his wife, both vaccinated, hesitated.

“After massive vaccinations in our country, how many of them had adverse effects? Said Mr. Zhang, 35. “There is also no public media to follow up, nor a government department to deal with it publicly.”

China is the last Covid-free country in the world, and officials have shown no willingness to change course. Cities of millions continue to be locked up in minor epidemics; tourist sites like Shanghai Disneyland have been closed for on-site testing. People who lie about infections, hide symptoms, or try to escape quarantine do so or go to jail.

“It’s about collective strength, so if you don’t comply you’ll be left behind. Your children will be looked down upon by the community and their teachers, ”said Bei Wu, professor of global health at New York University and an expert on public health policy in China.

Despite lingering doubts from parents like Mr. You and Mr. Zhang, China will likely succeed in getting most of its younger citizens vaccinated by the end of the year. Authorities galvanized nurses, doctors and community health workers to convince every parent that their child should roll up their sleeve not only for their own health, but for the good of the country.

The ruling Communist Party has pointed to the low number of Covid-19s in the country – less than 5,000 people have died – as proof that China’s authoritarian model is superior to the rest of the world, even though its borders remain closed and that ordinary citizens regain their personal freedom severely restricted during epidemics.

“What we need is collective freedom, social freedom and national freedom,” said Zhong Nanshan, China’s top disease expert. “It is only with these freedoms that we can have individual freedom.”

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