Last week, I dropped by the local vaccination center here in Kyrgyzstan to receive my first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese firm Sinopharm. Just a month ago, the prospects of getting a vaccine seemed to be too unrealistic. It was apparent that Kyrgyzstan, as a lower-middle-income country, will struggle to get access to and afford COVID-19 vaccines. The only hope was that either through programs like COVAX or bilateral support, Kyrgyzstan will receive a minimum number of doses to cover the most vulnerable people. And yet I received my first jab.
Kyrgyzstan is a small mountainous republic with a population of 6.6 million people located in the heart of Central Asia. The country was not immune to the new coronavirus outbreak. It went through a state of emergency, a two-month lockdown, and two devastating coronavirus waves. That said, it managed to receive just 170,000 doses of vaccines – enough to cover only 85,000 people. In total, 150,000 doses of Sinopharm’s Vero Cell came from China in late March and 20,000 doses of Sputnik V came from Russia just last week.
Kyrgyzstan’s national vaccination campaign began immediately with the arrival of the Chinese donation. Although there are ongoing discussions about China’s vaccine diplomacy and whether Beijing is capitalizing on COVID-19 vaccines to achieve political goals, China’s vaccine policy has given a lifeline to many low- and middle-income countries. Not only Kyrgyzstan, but states like Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Nepal, and Afghanistan also received batches of the Chinese vaccine, often way ahead of COVAX shipments. Obviously, these are the states that do not have institutional and financial capacities to secure vaccines produced by the likes of Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna. For instance, Kyrgyzstan had to refuse free Pfizer vaccines from COVAX, because it lacked the funds necessary to set up cold-chain logistics for storage and distribution.
Accordingly, in Kyrgyzstan, Vero Cell was initially available exclusively for the healthcare workers. Then the category of recipients was extended to include adults 65 years and older, teachers, and security service workers. However, vaccination rates climbed extremely slowly for a number of reasons, including general skepticism of vaccination, poor national information campaigns, and the lack of knowledge about vaccination among the broader population.
That said, there is also one more factor that might have impacted slow vaccination roll-out in Kyrgyzstan. It appears that Kyrgyz people’s distrust in Chinese coronavirus vaccines is quite high. A majority of Kyrgyz citizens are unwilling to get inoculated with the Chinese vaccine specifically. According to apoll conducted by a local news agency, only 3% of respondents asserted that they want to receive the Sinopharm vaccine. About 74% of respondents advised that they want to get the Russian Sputnik V, 5% of respondents confirmed that they will wait for AstraZeneca as part of a COVAX arrangement, and 17% of respondents refused to be vaccinated.
The results of this poll can be informally verified by the lines at local vaccination centers, where Sputnik V has been offered since April 23. The government of Kyrgyzstan restricted Sputnik V only to the category of adults 65 years and older and for those with chronic illnesses, which still did not prevent the queues. In contrast, until the arrival of Sputnik V, vaccination centers were underperforming with no visible lines of people eager to get inoculated with Vero Cell.
This situation pushed the government of Kyrgyzstan to offer the Sinopharm vaccine to all groups of people, and still, only approximately 19,000 people received their first doses thus far. As a result, Kyrgyzstan found itself in a paradoxical situation: being among the most lacking states in the world in terms of vaccine coverage per capita, while also holding a surplus of vaccines and being a place where all groups of people have access to them.
The situation is striking. Anecdotally, some cite the lack of detailed efficacy data of Vero Cell and questions about its protection rates. Some fear side effects. All in all, public trust in Chinese vaccines in Kyrgyzstan is low. However, the situation with Chinese vaccinations is just a part of a broader phenomenon. Although Beijing tries to improve its international image through a variety of initiatives, including vaccine diplomacy, China suffers from its shortage of soft power.
A “good Chinese narrative” is still missing in public discourses, and for many, China’s policies and actions appear to be about expansionism and imperialism. Despite the objectives set by the Chinese leadership to lead by example, Beijing’s ability to shape the preferences of others, including its direct neighbors, through attractiveness and leadership, is still questionable. Such a trend has long been visible in Central Asia. Multiple accounts of anti-Chinese protests in the region revealed a growing resistance to Chinese outreach on local levels. Even the prospects of inclusive growth through the Belt and Road Initiative could not mitigate some deeply rooted fears, sentiments, and Soviet-era cliches about China. The story with Vero Cell in Kyrgyzstan is just one more example to complement a broader picture.
That said, the third wave of COVID-19 is already looming over Kyrgyzstan, with the rates of transmission and deaths increasing every day. Thus, it is quite saddening to witness skepticism of the general population towards the Chinese vaccine. Vaccines are developed to save lives, and Beijing has put its reputation at stake with the promotion of its vaccines. The toll in lives has already been immense, and the economic losses have been too staggering to wait any longer.