As millions of Indians pick up their smartphones to sign up for the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program, one group of people is conspicuously left out.
Nearly 1.8 million people in India are homeless, and many of them do not have a phone or access to the internet, locking them out of an inoculation campaign that is largely online.
India is rolling out one of the largest vaccination drives in the world, as it continues to register more than a million new COVID-19 cases every three days. As of Friday, less than 3 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated.
But to sign up for vaccination under the scheme, you need a connection to the internet, a mobile phone number and a government-issued identification card with an address.
VICE World News spoke to homeless Indians who said the requirements barred them from getting vaccinated.
“How should a person like me register for the vaccine?” said 28-year-old Rani, who is from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh but often spends her nights at a shelter in the capital city New Delhi.
“I don’t even have a phone, let alone a smartphone to download the app. I don’t have an Aadhaar [government-issued ID card], and even if I get one made, what address should I put on it?” Rani, who goes by her first name only, added.
Flaws in the vaccination system are disproportionately hurting India’s indigenous Adivasis tribes and the Dalit community, who make up a third of the country’s homeless population. Dalits are the lowest rank in the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system, which continues to dictate opportunities and privilege in Indian society.
Rani belongs to the Dalit community. “These politicians all visit our shelters right before elections. They even got election cards made for some of us, but the minute we need something, such as this situation right now, they are nowhere to be found,” she said.
Anjali Rai, a Dalit woman activist from National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said the government’s vaccination rules will be “catastrophic for homeless people.”
“Most of these people are illiterate and unaware of the vaccination procedure, for which the government should be blamed as they did not address this information gap,” Rai told VICE World News.
Dev Pal, a field researcher at the Housing and Land Rights Network, an organisation that assists people like Rani, said homeless people are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.
“Homeless people are much more likely to contract the virus given the lack of housing rights, civic amenities and now with COVID-19, the lack of facilities for social isolation,” Dev said. “First, the government should provide proper housing, and then ask for things like documentation to get a vaccine.”
Most of the homeless people VICE World News spoke to only go by their first name. Parbhas, a 45-year-old activist for homeless rights who lives in a homeless shelter, said the government requirement of a mobile phone number made it even harder to get vaccinated.
“Some homeless people possess IDs, but they do not have a phone to get themselves registered on the app or website for vaccination. Again, a hurdle comes in because only four people can get registered through one mobile number. So, in case someone with a phone number wants to help out others, they can’t do that beyond four people,” he told VICE World News.
“Ironic, isn’t it? That we sleep close to a hospital we can never get into.”
Sonu sleeps in a shelter close to a hospital in India’s capital. He is scared of getting the virus at the crowded homeless shelter. “We have to sleep so close to each other. We use the same community bathrooms. Who will save us if we catch it?” 35-year-old Sonu told VICE World News.
“Ironic, isn’t it? That we sleep close to a hospital we can never get into,” he said.
46-year-old Manohar is healthy but fears for himself and other homeless people in the pandemic. “If such rich people are clamouring for beds, what will happen to us? We are already exposing ourselves in the absence of homes and the government should take specific care to vaccinate us,” he said.
“All we can do is take precautions for ourselves. This government has not spared a thought for us.”
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