No Win With CoWIN: Why the Vaccine Remains Out of Reach for Millions of Indians

On April 28, the Narendra Modi-led Central government announced that Phase 3 of the COVID-19 vaccination drive would begin from May 1 and that it would be open for those in the 18-45 category. The registration for the vaccine is to be done through the CoWIN website and app, which have been developed by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

On January 2021, when India was preparing to start rolling out vaccines, R.S. Sharma, chairman of the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management to combat COVID-19, and the current CEO of the National Health Administration, had said that “the process should be citizen-centric” and reiterated that “inclusivity, speed and scalability have been kept in mind while designing the unique digital platform”.

But a very different picture has emerged over the last two weeks.

As per data provided by TRAI, the tele-density of rural areas in India stands at just 59.5%. And India only has 757.61 million broadband subscribers, which is only just a little more than half of its population. This shows that mandatory online appointments themselves make India’s vaccination drive not inclusive for a large section of the population.

More so, the CoWIN website is only available in English. According to the 2011 census records, only about 10% of Indians speak English. There are studies which suggest that the actual number might be even lower.

The class divide caused by CoWIN can be seen on the ground. An administrator of a vaccine centre in Mumbai told Times of India that only “elite people” have been coming to get the vaccination. The situation is similar in other cities such as Bangalore where the well-to-do are thronging vaccination centres. Those from economically weaker sections have largely been unseen at these centres.

As India is facing a vaccine scarcity, there have also been reports of the privileged urban youth hogging slots even in rural areas as urban vaccination centres are running out of doses.

Along with announcing the commencement of Phase 3 of the vaccine drive, CoWIN website’s application programming interface (API) was also opened to the public on April 28. API is a set of programming code that allows two applications to talk to each other. Opening up of the API has allowed techies and private enterprises to create workarounds such as third-party websites and Telegram groups to allow for better searching of vaccines and notify people when slots open up in their area.

Since even the third-party applications are dependent on access to high-speed internet and smartphones, they won’t really help the underprivileged much. In fact, the CoWIN API might have, in reality, exacerbated the issue as it allowed those with the knowledge, to create scripts that book slots as soon as they become available. This makes it even harder for others to find and book slots before they run out. And even the captcha which was added to the website to reduce the use of bots seems to be doing more harm than good.

It isn’t just the rural population or those from economically weaker sections who are facing issues with the way the COVID-19 vaccination drive is currently set up. People with disabilities are also finding it difficult to register a slot through the digital platform that was designed with ‘inclusivity’ in mind. As the CoWIN website is not accessible for screen reader users, it is practically impossible for those who are blind to navigate around the website and book a slot for themselves. Even if they somehow manage to get a slot, long queues and delays in centres also make it hard for persons with disabilities and the elderly to get the jab.

Those dependent on others for getting registered can face further issues as the appointments for both the doses have to be done from the same profile in order to get both the certificates. This means that one would need to know a person who can be relied upon to book appointments for both doses of the vaccine, despite the time gap between them both.

Currently, vaccines are the only measure we have against the spread of COVID-19 other than social distancing and face masks. Hence, it is the duty of the government to ensure that it is accessible to all, regardless of their social status, age, or disabilities. Moreover, this pandemic will only end when we achieve herd immunity against COVID-19, and that won’t happen unless we vaccinate at least 70% of the population. If we make access to smartphones, high-speed internet, and English comprehension necessary to get vaccinated, we are leaving out a big part of the population from this programme.

Technology can be used to reduce the stress on the infrastructure, but it should not become a hindrance to the accessibility of vaccines for common people. The government should switch to on-the-ground mechanisms such as ‘open for all’ counters and home administering of vaccines for the disabled and the elderly to ensure a fair and equitable vaccine drive.

Sreedev Krishnakumar is a graduate in Political Science, currently pursuing a Masters degree on the subject. My areas of interest include tech policy, digital rights, and social justice in India.

Featured image credit: Reuters