Centre seeks to bridge digital divide to ensure vaccines for all

Vaccine policy mandating CoWIN registration and appointment for vaccine-takers in 18-44 age group remains exclusionary. The government aims to take corrective steps

The government is changing the process of CoWIN registration in order to reach more people | Representational Photo

The Centre’s vaccine policy, which mandates CoWIN registration and appointment for vaccine-takers for the 18-44 age group, remains exclusionary, but the government is trying to break the barriers.

RS Sharma, chairman of the government panel managing the CoWIN platform, on May 20 said the government may allow walk-ins at vaccination centres. His statement came nearly 20 days after realising the flip side – technology evading millions in rural areas and those with tech access booking slots in rural areas depriving them of their fair share.

To get a vaccine, one needs a smartphone, internet connection, money (if slots available in private centres), Aadhaar, and knowledge of English language as the CoWIN application initially did not support other languages.

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Osama Manzar, director of the non-profit Digital Empowerment Foundation in Delhi, says at least 80 crore or 60 per cent of the country’s population is deprived of these facilities. “We must remember that technology is not available to all in India. It’s only favouring the rich as not many are able to walk in and get the slots,” he says.

In some centres even though the healthcare workers help recipients register online, many are turned away. And with vaccines in short supply, states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, among others, stopped the vaccination drive for the said age group.

Sylvia Karpagam, public health expert in Bengaluru, views the vaccine policy and CoWIN registration and booking requirement as elitist. Sylvia, who assists patients pan-India with tele-consulting, narrated how a person in a semi-urban or rural area finds it difficult to handle a gadget and struggles to send images of doctor’s prescriptions for her to read and analyse their case.

“It’s easy to tell a person to handle a tech device. But for people in rural areas, even if some may have smartphones, they can’t read English or understand the functionalities. They may not know beyond YouTube and WhatsApp,” she says. “Technology can aid a good health system, but in the absence of it, it turns exclusionary and adds more barriers, which this government should address.”

But the government over the past week is making amendments to change the process. To fix the tech aspects, the government cached the appointment availability data by delaying the visibility for 30 minutes. With this, the developers and tech geeks trying to broadcast information to their user base, could get the information delayed. However, still, some are trying to beat the system and get the information quickly.

Also read: India’s failure on the vaccine front, and what needs to be done now

In some cases, the app-developers and software engineering helping people by broadcasting information on vaccine availability through social platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram also delayed the information dissemination by a minute so that people do not take undue advantage. One of the developers wishing to remain anonymous said ever since they started to do that, many are unable to book slots and hurl abuses at them thinking they are giving false information. “If we don’t bring in some control, the government may stop us from doing what we are doing. That may affect a lot more people. So we thought to take some corrective steps,” the developer said.

In Karnataka, Chief Minister Yediyurappa had said the government would fix the limitations regarding where one chooses to get vaccinated soon. News report quoting sources in the Health Ministry said the government would come up with a new portal that would allow people to get vaccinated only in their locality/wards.

Also, on May 16, when Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan held a meeting with states urging them to break the “myth” that CoWIN platform is biased to those abled by technology. Bhushan requested them to engage ASHA workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs) to mobilize eligible population groups by proactively bringing them to the vaccination centres, registering them as on-site registration and then ensuring their vaccination.

Similarly, it asked the block medical officers to help people get registered and book appointments.

In Hoskote, Bangalore rural district, Dr Satish Kumar, chief medical officer at the taluk hospital said starting May 22, they would issue tokens and ask people to stand in queues. “We will have 70 slots every day for the next week. So we will issue tokens to those on a first-come-first-served basis and send back the rest. They can come the next day and the process would start afresh,” he said.

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