Photo: Manjunath Kiran / AFP
India had a vaccination plan. Folks living in cities or places with easy internet access could sign up for their COVID-19 vaccine shots on the government’s website or mobile app. And Indians living in villages or places with low or no internet access could go to the closest government health facility, sign up online there and get their COVID-19 jab on the spot.
The plan didn’t work. Because Indians living in cities gamed the system – after it failed them.
Unable to sign-up or find appointments close to their homes, some Indians in cities drove long distances to villages to get COVID-19 vaccine shots instead, often denying doses earmarked for poor villagers, who can’t sign up online themselves.
It’s not exactly their fault. The government’s website and mobile app, designed specifically for one of the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drives, could not keep up with the millions of sign-ups coming in from cities.
“I’ve spent several hours on the government website chasing a vaccine appointment, and the slots fill out within seconds,” Kunal Sawant, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from the city of Pune in the Indian state of Maharashtra, told VICE World News.
“After losing multiple booking slots, I finally just rushed for whatever was available, and that turned out to be in a fringe area more than two hours away,” Sawant said.
Sahil Khan, a designer based in Pune also tried to register on the government’s website to get an appointment in his city, which has more than 3 million residents. “But there were no centres available for my zip code,” he said.
India faces a severe COVID-19 vaccine shortage. So far, only 2.5 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population has received both doses of the vaccine, while just 10 percent has received one dose.
Some sources told VICE World News that they also used circumvention techniques such as Telegram alert services or actually coded automation software to get them preferential access.
On Tuesday, India reported 348,555 new cases, the second day in a row daily infections dipped below 400,000 since May 6.
More than 22 million have already gotten COVID-19 in India and close to a quarter million people have died from the virus. India’s COVID-19 fatalities are among the highest in the world.
As India grapples with the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, the government opened up vaccination slots to Indians between the ages of 18 and 45 on May 1. But it mandated that all appointments must be pre-booked through the CO-WIN website – a centralised digital platform to roll out India’s mammoth vaccination programme – or India’s official COVID-19 tracking app Aarogya Setu. To sign up, Indians just need a government-issued ID with a proof of address and a mobile number on which they could receive a text message.
When India kicked off its vaccination drive in early April for front-line workers and people above the age of 45, the country was administering a record high of 3.5 million shots on average in a day. But over the past week this number has reduced to 1.3 million shots.
“Vaccine supply has remained nearly the same since the drive began in January, but the target population eligible has increased by threefold,” Chandrakant Lahariya, a health policy expert, told Associated Press. “In the beginning, India had far more assured supply available than the demand, but now the situation has reversed.”
And Khan seemed to be caught in the supply shortage. Days later, still unable to get a slot close to home, he traveled to a city an hour away from his neighbourhood to get his first dose. Another friend of his, who had comorbidities, decided to go to a rural health centre to get their jab.
Experts have previously pointed out that the use of apps and mobile codes that allow individuals to get priority access in vaccination drives could lead to inequality, especially for underprivileged or elderly sections of society who may not have access to high-speed internet or mobile phones.
“I have received some complaints from rural areas that tech-savvy people in cities are entering rural pin codes to register themselves for COVID-19 vaccination,” Rajesh Tope, the Maharashtra state Minister of Public Health and Family Welfare, said in a press statement, condemning the issue.
“It is injustice to rural people who are being deprived of opportunity to get inoculated. City people should not do this. There is no need to panic over the limited supply of vaccine doses.”
The health minister did not offer a solution to city dwellers in his state who were desperately trying to secure vaccines slots online and often celebrating online, once they do.
“People are posting updates and stories on social media, as if getting a vaccine slot was like booking tickets for the hottest film festival,” a Mumbai-based media professional, who did not wish to be named for safety concerns, told VICE World News.
The source added that he had encouraged multiple friends who got slots in rural areas to cancel their appointments. “It was all in poor taste, and really highlights the social injustice created by the digital divide.”
With 600 million users, India has the second-highest number of mobile phone users, and accounts for 12 percent of the global number. However, according to government data, half of India’s population does not have internet access, and those who do have access are unaware of how to use digital services.
Multiple Indians VICE World News spoke to reported that vaccine registration was easier to do through a laptop, and was more likely to glitch when done through a mobile phone, making it even harder for Indians with only mobile phones to sign up.
And a journalist alleged that some privileged Indians skipped online registrations all together and got vaccines in Mumbai.
Experts blame India’s COVID-19 nightmare on mismanagement and lack of preparedness of the government.
Even Sahil Khan, the Pune-based designer, admits the vaccine access divide in India isn’t fair.
“Financially well-off people like us are getting access to vaccines even when we can work from home,” he said. “But there are people who don’t know how to access the vaccine when they need it the most.”