beijings vaccine reversal a sign of competing interests between national and municipal govts - Beijing's vaccine reversal a sign of competing interests between national and municipal govts

BEIJING – In a national first, Beijing last week announced that those who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 would not be allowed into certain crowded spaces, including libraries, galleries and gyms.

But the decision was quietly backtracked a day later after a small but intense backlash from residents, with the state-backed Beijing Daily reporting last Thursday (July 7) that the government had ditched the plan.

Citing an interview with an unnamed health official, the newspaper said Beijingers will be able to enter public venues as long as they have proof of a Covid-19 test within 72 hours and undergo a temperature check.

Experts are now divided over whether the initial mandate was meant to set the stage for further opening up, or a result of overzealous bureaucrats trying to meet arbitrary targets.

Had it been implemented, China’s capital would have followed what many countries, including Singapore, have done in boosting herd immunity before moving towards co-existing with the virus.

According to official statistics, about 1.26 billion people in China are fully vaccinated.

But this means that 10 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion, or roughly 140 million people and mostly the elderly, have been holding out against getting vaccinated, citing concerns about side effects and other reasons.

The central government has from the start insisted that vaccinations are completely voluntary, but made the jabs a requirement for those working in healthcare, transport and even the service sector.

This is why last week’s announcement came as a surprise, as it expanded the vaccine mandate for all Beijing residents instead of just those in front-line sectors.

In some ways, it is also a reflection of the country’s quandary: How does the government increase vaccination rates in a programme meant to be completely voluntary?

The National Health Commission had previously said it was worried about the unvaccinated elderly, after seeing the high death rates and overwhelmed healthcare system in Hong Kong during the city’s Covid-19 outbreak late last year and earlier this year.

Yet the initial Beijing mandate also seemed half-hearted, leaving out most-frequented places such as markets, shopping malls and office buildings.

The flip-flop is also a sign of the divide – from differing priorities – that sometimes exists between local officials and the central government.

A similar split had shown up in Shanghai earlier this year, when the municipal government tried to prevent a full lockdown of the entire city, first attempting to limit movement in individual estates and districts, before embarking on a “split lockdown”, restricting half the city each time.

But that was quickly overridden by officials at the national level, who ordered the entire city quarantined upon short notice, a measure that went on for two months.