India is a village country and even after the 4G internet boom led by Reliance Jio, its villages remain lacking in mobile network connectivity leave alone mobile data. The mandatory registration of Covid-19 Vaccines makes the inoculation drive in India discriminatory in nature.
The government of India led by Narendra Modi has been under fire for its vaccine policy and strategy for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there was the non-availability of vaccines for the 18-44 years of age bracket. Then there was the decision of handing over the pricing and distribution of these vaccines to private companies manufacturing them, leaving the citizens of the country to fend for themselves. Later when these companies fixed three different prices for the Central Governments, State Governments and Private Individuals, there appeared to be clear discrimination.
However, there is another aspect of this inoculation strategy that has not been focused on much. The mandatory online registration for the 18-44 age group of people on the government’s cowin portal. An enthusiastic response greeted the opening of online registrations for Covid-19 vaccination for those above 18 with the Co-Win platform recording over 1.23 crore registrations even though scheduling of appointments for May 1 onwards was not possible at that time.
Vaccine Registrations for Adults – Co-Win
On the other hand, when the Narendra Modi-led Indian government opened up vaccine registrations for all adult citizens, 29-year-old Mousumi Chatterjee felt left out. The government said citizens should sign up on CoWIN, its COVID-19 vaccine registration website, or download its coronavirus contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, on their phones. Vaccination slots would be made available on May 1.
But Chatterjee, a domestic worker in Kolkata, has no idea what the CoWIN website and the Aarogya Setu app are. Her mobile and internet literacy are limited to making calls, exchanging messages on WhatsApp, and browsing Facebook: the latter two only because a salesperson at a mobile store downloaded the apps on her phone and changed the language setting to Bangla, the only one she can read. “I have never heard of the Aarogya Setu app. I don’t know how to download apps. I’m not educated. How will I self-register?” Chatterjee said in an interview.
Aarogya Setu App & Cowin Portal Limitations
While the Aarogya Setu app is available in a few regional Indian languages, including Bangla, Chatterjee was not aware that she needed to download it and register on it in order to get the vaccine, until a family she works for explained to her and offered to help her register. The CoWIN website, however, is available only in the English language.
Within minutes of registrations opening at 4 pm on April 28, the CoWIN website crashed. (Registration is only mandatory for those under 45; those older than 45 can simply go to a hospital to get vaccinated, assuming there’s a shot available – which is a big assumption.) To register, you had to request a one-time password. But the text messages with the one-time passwords came too slowly for many people to register successfully before their session on the site expired.
Some still managed to register on the portal – the government boasted that more than 13 million people did on April 28. As of May 4, a total of 51 million people in the 18-44 age group had registered. But registrations don’t really matter because India is experiencing a dire shortage of vaccines, which means within seconds of opening up, slots are booked. Only 662,619, or 1.3% of the 51 million Indian citizens in the 18-44 age group registered on the portal, have been able to get their first jabs. Many, perhaps even most, of them succeeded because they had access to advanced technical skills that helped them jump the line and book a slot. In the US, a situation much the same arose in the beginning of this year when citizens were scrambling to find appointments due to a similar imbalance of supply and demand. In India, the situation is far worse. The Indian government has fallen way short of its own target of vaccinating citizens. Less than 2 percent of the country’s total population has been fully vaccinated, and less than 40 percent of targeted health and front-line workers are fully vaccinated.
India is struggling for oxygen, hospital beds and woods for cremation
Meanwhile, India’s second COVID-19 wave, which strengthened in the second half of February, has only worsened. People have been begging for oxygen cylinders, medicines, hospital beds, plasma donors and ventilators on social media. There are more dead bodies than wood available for cremating them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for not prioritizing the pandemic while permitting the continued constructing of his new residence (set to be ready by December 2022), part of the $2.6 billion Central Vista project. Recommendations from experts for a lockdown have been ignored. Citizens are angry, frustrated and discouraged seeing no clear plan of action from the nation’s leader to manage the pandemic.
Their helplessness has been exacerbated by an unjust vaccination system that prioritises efficiency and high technology instead of need, loading the dice in favour of the tech-savvy elite over most of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Ahead of vaccine registration for the 18-44 age group on April 28, the government opened up CoWIN’s application programming interface to third parties. By offering tech tools like application programming interface that can only be used by software programmers, the government, in effect, has created a discriminatory arrangement that defeats the logic and urgency of a public health program. In this environment of scarcity, the government’s message seems to be: learn how to code and you can get a vaccine.
One such person who has taken advantage of this unequal vaccination policy is Anirudh Patil, a 35-year-old finance professional based in Thane, a city just outside of Mumbai. His wife registered both of them on the Aarogya Setu app on April 29.
Patil didn’t bother checking for an appointment on May 1 because he figured that it would be next to impossible to book a slot. But the following day, his techie friend Saurabh Das called him alerting him about available slots. Patil called his wife, who, on her very first attempt, was able to book two slots on the app for the next day at a primary health center, about 25 miles away from their home, in a town called Vasind.
Both Patil and his wife have received their first jabs of Covishield, a variant of Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by the Serum Institute of India. “There was definitely a certain amount of luck that was involved in getting the slots so quickly. Slots are getting filled in the first 20-30 seconds of them opening,” he told me.
But it wasn’t just luck. Patil’s friend Das, a 36-year-old technology consultant based in Mumbai, had himself been trying to book a slot. Even when he found some available, by the time he would log in using a one-time password, select the time, and confirm the appointment, all the slots would be booked. The CoWIN website automatically logs users out 15 minutes after logging in.
The Digpu News Bottomline
All in all, the mandatory registration makes the inoculation drive in India discriminatory in nature. Discriminatory against people who:
- Are technologically challenged.
- Have no access to smartphones or laptops.
- Have no access to internet in any form.
- Are not literate enough to complete the registration process.
The government needs to answer a few important questions at this stage of the devastating second wave of the virus and an impending third wave in November.
- Is the inoculation strategy in line with Article 14 of the Constitution?
- With the vaccine shortage facing the country, what will happen to these people who are unable to register?
- When the third wave hits in November, is the government prepared for cases that will come from this non-vaccinated bracket that is manifolds bigger than the one who is able to register?