HONG KONG — China is accelerating efforts to vaccinate older people against the coronavirus, health officials said Tuesday, as security personnel came out in force to deter further demonstrations against strict “zero-Covid” controls that convulsed the nation over the weekend.
The relatively low vaccination rate among China’s oldest people is a major reason the country is still trying to isolate every case even as the rest of the world is accepting the virus as endemic. Officials fear that opening up too quickly could bring a wave of Covid deaths and undermine public trust in the ruling Communist Party.
Meanwhile, Cheng Youquan, an official with the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration, issued a rare acknowledgement Tuesday that unpredictable lockdowns had caused anxiety and disruption, saying the situation “must be corrected and avoided.”
Public dissatisfaction is not with the Covid restrictions themselves but with their “one-size-fits-all” implementation at the local level and the neglect of people’s demands, he said at a regular weekly news briefing.
Protests of various sizes broke out in major cities thousands of miles apart over China’s Covid restrictions, which have confined millions of people to their homes and greatly harmed the economy. In some cases, protesters called for the ouster of President Xi Jinping, who has strongly backed the “zero-Covid” strategy, in the country’s biggest show of civil disobedience in decades.
By Tuesday, streets that had swelled with protests were walled off and guarded by security personnel, some of whom searched pedestrians’ phones for images or messaging apps that could link them to the demonstrations, according to Reuters.
In Beijing, police guarded the site of a protest on Sunday where people sang the Chinese national anthem, including the lyrics “Rise, people who do not wish to be slaves” and “Arise, arise, arise.”
Many of the weekend protests took place on university campuses, which have historically been the birthplace of China’s political movements. Tsinghua University in Beijing, where protesting students had chanted, “We want democratic rule of law, we want freedom of speech,” said in a statement on an official WeChat account that it would assist students who wished to go home and study remotely, citing their health and safety.
While the protests were largely tamped down, there continued to be scattered incidents of unrest. Late Monday in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, protesters dismantled a Covid-19 testing kiosk, throwing a bike and other objects as onlookers cheered and filmed, according to a video posted online and geolocated by NBC News. Another video showed more than 30 shield-carrying security personnel in white hazmat suits arriving at the scene.
Guangzhou officials on Monday announced that mass testing in most districts would no longer be required for older people, remote workers, students taking classes online and others who don’t need to leave home, in what was seen as an effort to placate the public.
Experts say China will have a tough time navigating its way out of the pandemic without getting more people inoculated. Many older people in China have resisted vaccination for fear of side effects, or because they saw little risk of contracting the virus in a country with virtually no cases. The proportion of people 60 and older who have received two doses is about 86.4%, according to official data, compared with 93% of people 65 and older in the U.S.
Chinese vaccines are also considered less effective against the highly transmissible omicron variant, and the government has resisted approving Western mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna as it tries to develop its own version.
The National Health Commission said Tuesday that it was especially focused on increasing vaccinations among people older than 80, though it did not announce a mandate. Officials will improve education around the vaccines, enlist the help of family members and use mobile vaccination vehicles, the agency said, and analyze “big data” to identify older people who need to be inoculated.
With new, mostly asymptomatic infections still being reported across China — 38,421 on Tuesday, down from a record 40,052 the day before — some Covid restrictions are still tightening.
Starting Tuesday, residents of China’s largest city and its commercial capital, Shanghai, are required to show a negative PCR test from the past 48 hours — down from 72 hours — to enter restaurants, bars, shopping malls, supermarkets, beauty salons and other businesses. The restrictions match those implemented in Beijing last week.
Shanghai Disneyland, which only reopened on Friday after being closed for almost a month after a visitor tested positive for the virus, closed again on Tuesday for an indefinite period.
An opinion article Tuesday in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said officials at all levels must “unswervingly implement” the government’s Covid policies. It did not mention the protests.
“The harder it is, the more you have to grit your teeth,” it said.