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China ramps up COVID vaccination for elderly after rare protests

Mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago comes as the number of COVID cases hit record daily highs and large parts of several cities face new lockdowns.

China will speed up COVID-19 vaccinations for elderly people, aiming to overcome a key stumbling block in efforts to ease unpopular “zero-COVID” curbs.

The move is seen as a crucial element in a strategy to unwind nearly three years of strict curbs that have eroded economic growth, disrupted the lives of millions, and sparked unprecedented weekend protests.

The National Health Commission (NHC) said it would target more vaccinations at people older than 80 and reduce the gap between basic vaccination and booster shots to three months for the elderly.

“It is also the hope that our elderly friends, especially those over 80, will take the initiative and get vaccinated for their personal health protection,” said Xia Gang, an NHC official in charge of immunisation services.

Optimising services and delivering more accurate publicity were a priority, he told a briefing.

The elderly will get easy access through special priority services, with mobile vaccination vehicles also pressed into service, the NHC said.

A publicity campaign will be launched to fight vaccine hesitancy among older Chinese, promoting the benefits of vaccines in staving off severe illness and death, it added.

The share of those aged 60 and older who have received two doses was 86.4 percent by November 11, up by less than a percentage point since August, official data show.

Recipients of a booster jab made up 68.2 percent of the elderly population, up marginally from 67.8 percent three months earlier.

‘Too many police’

Chinese authorities have begun inquiries into some of the people who gathered at weekend protests against the COVID curbs, as police remained out in numbers on Beijing’s streets.

In one case, a caller identifying as a police officer in the Chinese capital asked a protester to come to a police station on Tuesday to deliver a written record of their activities on Sunday night.

In another, a student was contacted by their colleague and asked if they had been in the area where events took place and to provide a written account.

“We are all desperately deleting our chat history,” one Beijing protester who declined to be identified. “There are just too many police. Police came to check the ID of one of my friends and then took her away. We don’t know why. A few hours later they released her.”

Beijing’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law.

Simmering discontent with stringent COVID prevention policies three years into the pandemic ignited broader protests in cities thousands of kilometres apart over the weekend.

‘Simplifying control measures’

Mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago comes as the number of COVID cases hit record daily highs and large parts of several cities face new lockdowns.

A health official said complaints around COVID controls were mainly about their inflexible implementation.

“The problems highlighted by the public are not aimed at the epidemic prevention and control itself, but focus on simplifying prevention and control measures,” Cheng Youquan told reporters.

COVID has spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and demanding significant sacrifices from its population to comply with frequent testing and prolonged isolation.

Chinese universities, meanwhile, are sending students home.

Tsinghua University, where students protested on Sunday, and other schools in Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong said they were protecting students from COVID-19. But dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more activism following protests at campuses last weekend.

Some universities arranged buses to take students to train stations. They said classes and final exams would be conducted online.

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