China offers free food to spur citizens to get vaccinated

In China, where the coronavirus outbreak has been largely contained since the middle of last year and where vaccine makers initially focused on exporting doses, the domestic rollout has been slow, with only about 4 percent of the population vaccinated, according to health officials.

Ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and the politically important 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July, officials are now ramping up to vaccinate 40 percent of the population by the end of June and more than 64 percent by the end of the year. China’s National Health Commission said Monday that 140 million doses of vaccines have been delivered and that doses are expected to reach 10 million a day, up from around 3 million.

To hit that goal, officials are mobilizing local districts and neighborhoods, universities, businesses and schools to persuade wary residents to take one of five Chinese vaccines that have been approved for use within the country. Villages have erected banners and sent workers to households to impress upon residents that it is their national duty to be inoculated, despite misgivings over possible side effects or the fact that many see no great urgency in being vaccinated, given China’s low rates of infection from the virus.

Others have offered free packs of tissues, eggs, flour and grocery coupons in exchange for submitting to the shots. In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, businesses where more than 80 percent of staff have been vaccinated were given brightly decorated certificates to hang up. “Vaccination is good for the country and good for the people,” the posters read. A Japanese restaurant offered free portions of chicken wings and dumplings to the first 50 customers who showed they had received the shots.

In Pinggu, a suburb of Beijing, residents were told that they would receive 50 yuan ($7.60) prizes in cash or merchandise once they have been fully vaccinated. Other suburbs promised 100 yuan ($15.20) awards for every shot, according to notices posted online. In the Shijingshan neighborhood, vaccinated residents were given free entry into all parks — a measure that some Internet users called “a little stingy.”

The lengths the government has gone to convince the public of the safety of the Chinese vaccines underline the limits of the country’s vaccine diplomacy at home as well as abroad, where the lack of published clinical trial data from Sinovac and Sinopharm, among the earliest vaccine makers globally, has dented public confidence.

Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Education called on colleges and schools to “guide teachers and students” and “vigorously publicize the positive role of vaccines” to dispel doubts and “encourage willingness.” State-run China Radio International has advised local propaganda departments to use “fun and innovative” approaches to persuade residents.

The campaign has been waged by sticks as well as carrots, prompting backlash as residents say they are being forced to receive the vaccinations. In an editorial last week, the official news agency Xinhua called on Communist Party cadres to “be on guard” against “crude” measures. Among such steps, colleges have barred students from graduating if they have not been vaccinated, and some companies have required all employees to be inoculated, regardless of their personal health conditions.

In the southern province of Hainan, village officials in the town of Wancheng apologized after initially mandating that residents who were not vaccinated would be put on a “blacklist” and barred from taking public transport or entering local markets.

Issuing a retraction of the policy, the propaganda department overseeing the town said it still “sincerely urged residents to respond to the country’s call” and get vaccinated.