Unvaccinated residents of parts of China will be barred from accessing public services, including hospitals, schools and nursing homes, as the country strives to achieve a Covid-19 vaccination rate of at least 80%.
Over the past week, dozens of county governments in at least eight provinces have issued notices warning citizens that they have until late July or early August to get vaccinated, after which they will face various restrictions in their daily lives.
"Everyone is responsible for preventing and controlling the epidemic, and vaccination starts with me!" - read one of the notices published this week by Dingnan County in Jiangxi Province, home to some 220,000 people. The notice added that "in principle" unvaccinated residents will be denied access to schools, public transport and medical facilities, as well as other amenities and services, starting July 26.
Local governments are pushing to boost vaccination rates as the ruling Communist Party has announced its goal of achieving so-called herd immunity - when enough people are either infected or vaccinated to stop transmission in the community - by December this year.
Shao Yiming, an epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state media that given that the protection rate of Chinese vaccines is below 100%, China will need to fully vaccinate 80% to 85% of its residents, which is equivalent to 1 billion in 1, 4 the entire population of the country to meet the December deadline.
Since China has largely contained the spread of the virus, many residents initially did not see the need for vaccinations. The history of scandals related to the safety of domestic vaccines has also contributed to public indecision. However, several recent localized outbreaks, including in the northern provinces of Anhui and Liaoning, and in Guangdong in the south of the country, have fueled fears of infection, prompting populations to rush to vaccinate in the affected regions.
In recent months, the pace of vaccinations across the country has accelerated, with more than 10 million vaccinations being given on average per day. As of Wednesday, the Chinese government has administered 1.4 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to state media estimates, although the overall percentage of the population receiving two vaccinations remains unclear.
In an all-out campaign, government officials travel to neighborhoods to convince people to get vaccinated, and vaccination sites offer benefits ranging from shopping vouchers to free food and ice cream.
However, experts warned that many residents who have not yet received a single dose of the vaccine will be more difficult to reach, especially in rural areas, prompting local authorities to take more drastic measures to ensure herd immunity.
"All the strategies they used to convince people to get vaccinated … may not work in the next round of vaccinations," said Yangrong Huang, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Global Health Division.
"Making vaccination mandatory may be the only viable solution to the problem," he added.