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At China’s Borders, “Vaccine Passports” Just Got Real

In announcing it would prioritize travelers who had received Chinese-made vaccines, Beijing sparked outrage in countries where those aren’t available.

By Rajni George is a freelance editor and writer.
A representative stands in front of a monitor at Sinopharm CNBG’s COVID-19 vaccine production facility during a media tour in Beijing on Feb. 26.
A representative stands in front of a monitor at Sinopharm CNBG’s COVID-19 vaccine production facility during a media tour in Beijing on Feb. 26. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The idea of vaccine passports to reopen travel after the pandemic has been kicking around since nearly the beginning of COVID-19’s spread. But on March 15, China added a new wrinkle to the discussion, when it announced, through embassies in about 20 countries, that it would specifically facilitate visas for those who had received a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine (negative COVID-19 tests and quarantines are still requirements).

This move, coming on top of other ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions, has caused particular alarm in countries like India, where the Chinese vaccine is not available. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers, students, and family members currently stranded in Australia, Greece, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States are in the same boat.

The idea of vaccine passports to reopen travel after the pandemic has been kicking around since nearly the beginning of COVID-19’s spread. But on March 15, China added a new wrinkle to the discussion, when it announced, through embassies in about 20 countries, that it would specifically facilitate visas for those who had received a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine (negative COVID-19 tests and quarantines are still requirements).

This move, coming on top of other ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions, has caused particular alarm in countries like India, where the Chinese vaccine is not available. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers, students, and family members currently stranded in Australia, Greece, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States are in the same boat.

“If the China government can accept [World Health Organization]-assessed vaccines, it’ll be helpful to the resuming of air travel,” said a 30-year-old Indian professional who is still trying to return to his job in the automotive industry in Shanghai and requested anonymity. Fourteen months after he returned to India, his visa and invitation letter expired. Like many, he’s had a pay cut; however, he is better off than some friends who are not being paid at all since they cannot report to work back in China. Now, expatriate workers like him are considering whether to access the China vaccine through a third country like the United Arab Emirates. That would be expensive and time-consuming but perhaps necessary.

Although the World Health Organization has approved the AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines, it has yet to approve a single Chinese formulation. This is widely attributed to China’s lack of transparency around its clinical trial data and its reported efficacy rates as low as 50 percent in Brazil, where the vaccines are being used. Although China has self-reported results closer to 80 percent, the UAE is even offering third doses of China-made vaccines to help boost the shot’s desired immune response.

Fears about the vaccine aside, some expatriates can’t afford to say no to it. One student in Afghanistan seemed especially defeated, writing on Twitter, “We are ready to follow any rules just to go back to China and continue our studies and make our career.” A 23-year-old Indian medical student who has been unable to attend classes at Jilin Medical University in China for 14 months vented his frustration too. “We are getting just some [PowerPoints] and recorded video lectures. We don’t have live classes,” he wrote me this month. “Can you go to a doctor who graduated online who doesn’t have any practical knowledge?”

In India, there are more than 23,000 people like him—people who were attending medical school in China, went home early last year because of the pandemic, and haven’t been able to return. Around the world, there are many more. On March 22, the China International Students Union—@takeusbacktoCHN on Twitter and @takeusbacktochina on Instagram—posted a letter on behalf of an estimated hundreds of thousands globally. Many of them are vocally protesting the lack of effective communication, using words like “inhuman” (a doctoral student at Wuhan University of Science and Technology) to describe the Chinese government’s treatment of them. Expatriates working or studying in China are often cautious about expressing criticism of government policies, but indignation on social media, even if people don’t always use their real names, is getting louder.

The question is: Why is China refusing to acknowledge the other vaccines? It may be a way of pressuring countries to offer China-made vaccines. Some experts like Nicholas Thomas, associate professor of health security at the City University of Hong Kong, told Fortune last week that “China wants to ensure that Chinese vaccines remain the preferred choice.”

Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, at a media briefing in Beijing last week, put the new prerequisite down to the desire to protect the public. “It is not linked to the recognition of Chinese vaccines,” he said. On March 24, another spokesperson, Hua Chunying, addressed the global outcry, among other things, at a press conference. She said that “providing convenience to those inoculated with Chinese vaccines does not affect the existing policy for those inbound personnel who are not inoculated with Chinese vaccines.” In other words, it will offer priority to those with Chinese vaccines now, though it is yet to be seen how decisions will be made in practice.

China is making swift advances in the vaccine game. It has donated 8.3 million doses and has administered 65 million vaccines at home. It has pledged half a billion more doses to other countries, trying to promote its vaccine in the majority of the world’s countries. More than 60 countries have now authorized China’s vaccines despite their lack of transparent efficacy and safety data.

Meanwhile, India, which produces more than 60 percent of global vaccines, is predicted to emerge from the pandemic as an even bigger medical supplies powerhouse (at a projected 3.5 billion COVID-19 vaccines for 2021 compared to the United States’ projected 4 billion), according to consulting firm Deloitte. It has vaccinated around 50 million people at home with at least one shot of either the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India, or Covaxin shots from homegrown firm Bharat Biotech. It has also sent 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world, donating 8.5 million of those.

“Not only has India overshadowed China as a provider of cheap and accessible vaccines to the Global South; it has been quicker and more effective,” wrote Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor in Project Syndicate earlier this month. He gave the examples of Myanmar—China announced 300,000 doses for Myanmar and didn’t deliver, while India supplied 1.7 million promptly—as well as Afghanistan, Brazil, and Cambodia.

With this latest gambit at China’s borders, however, the competition has heated up. And India’s announcement that it will temporarily suspend exports of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be a gamechanger. Meanwhile, as reports about the downside of vaccine diplomacy abound around the world—with rumors of incitement to cut diplomatic ties to Taiwan and prisoner exchanges in return for vaccines—vaccine diplomacy continues to complicate the world’s efforts to defeat COVID-19.

Rajni George is a freelance editor and writer. She has been a senior editor at Penguin Random House India, a reader at Granta, a poetry editor at The Caravan, and an editor at Hippocrene Books in New York. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera, National Geographic TravelerThe SpectatorEl País, the New York Times, and American Book Review, among others.

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