Editorial: No space for elitism in vax drive

On May 1, India embarked on the world’s most ambitious vaccination programme – targeting all adults over the age of 18. The online initiative was yet another foray into the nation’s Digital India dream.
Editorial: No space for elitism in vax drive
Representative image.

Chennai

However, the vaccination drive for those aged 18-44 – a formidable 600 mn strong population has embraced a Darwinian aesthetic, as the axiom ‘survival of the fittest’ has been given a makeover as survival of the geekiest. The reason is that booking an appointment for a vaccination is nothing short of a hackathon as far as India’s tech-savvy population is concerned.
The process likened by many as the equivalent of booking Tatkal tickets during Deepavali rush, had turned out to be an exercise in futility for millions, who had been camping on the CoWin page for hours together, tearing out their hair in frustration as hundreds of slots got booked within seconds after showing they are available for appointment. While this has been the experience of the common man who opted to access the CoWin site conventionally, for those with a working knowledge of scripts, APIs and threadbare coding, booking an appointment was a cakewalk. Several programmers have taken advantage of the CoWin portal’s open API and created a host of sites that offer citizens across cities, real-time updates on when vaccine slots open up for booking, helping them book the slots on priority. The CoWin API or Application Programming Interface, helps users or programmers access the framework of the CoWin portal and integrate it within their platforms, similar to how food delivery aggregators use Google Maps app to locate and make deliveries. Many sites have built-in functionalities that support messaging alerts via Telegram and Facebook, so users do not miss out on the opening of any vaccination slots.
It may be recalled that in December 2020, Telecom and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad invited IT innovators to help strengthen the CoWin platform to roll out the pan India vaccination programme. What the Centre did not account for was that the availability of vaccines should keep pace with the speed at which young India was developing software solutions to make these vaccines available to the public. Aarogya Setu, the contact tracing app pitched as a cornerstone of India’s battle against COVID, and has since been relegated to an afterthought, has also been linked to the CoWin app. But booking an appointment via the app is next to impossible because there seems to be no real-time link between the app and the CoWin portal as the only alert users get is that ‘All slots have been booked at the Centre you’ve chosen.’
Interestingly, one of the FAQs on the CoWin portal is regarding how citizens without smartphones and computers can manage the online registration. The answer to that is ‘seek help from friends and family’. It is baffling that a national rollout of vaccines can be carried out in such an ad-hoc manner that discounts variables including the internet penetration of India – just about 45%. That still leaves one in every two individuals clueless about how to get a vaccine.
While the efforts of the technocrats in the making are laudable, it inspires the question –why did something as essential as life-saving vaccines require a knowledge of programming to access them?
There are no two ways about this. There cannot be a vaccine rollout that does not account for sections of our population that are untouched by internet literacy. The Centre and States must step in and ensure that an equitable methodology is employed when it comes to prioritising vaccinations. Whether it’s an Aadhaar-based or a mobile-based solution, the drive can no longer coast on an elitist manifesto – vaccination is a fundamental right of every citizen, and the administrations could do well by putting in place a distribution system that guarantees that.

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