Chapter Two: India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive and its struggle with Digital Divide

Where did we disappear after the first edition you might ask. Well dear readers, it has been a difficult year. One member of our team lost a loved one. Another experienced neurological issues arising out of ‘long covid’ which he was infected with- twice in a span of less than one year. There’s more but we’ll stop here. So we hope you will continue to read us and this time, you will hear from us very often.

 The biggest story across the globe is the second wave of Covid-19 raging through India and the tremendous loss and trauma being experienced by millions-more because of the lack of medicines, oxygen, and hospital beds than the virus itself.

 Our focus in this edition of TypeRight therefore will exclusively be on this devastation and the role that Digital is playing and not playing in it. 

 India is woefully short of vaccines. The vaccination program has now been opened to everyone above eighteen years of age. Less vaccines. More people. Who decides whether you get a vaccine or don’t? A website. There appears to be no way for disabled people to access it. Registration to this website requires an ‘OTP’. OTP needless to say requires access to a mobile phone. 

 1.     Millions of Indians don’t have access to the internet-whether via mobile or broadband. 

2.     Millions of Indians don’t have access to any mobile phone. 

3.     There are villages where internet is available but no one has a smart phone.

4.     There are villages where internet is available, people have a smart phone but don’t know how to use it for anything other than making a phone call or sending a SMS.

5.     Millions of Indians who have access to the internet and know how to use a smartphone, do not know how to read English. As of 9th May, 2021, The only language on this website is English.

6.     In countless villages, only one person has a mobile phone- the chief of the village. Sometimes even this chief’s phone is not a smart phone. 

7.     In countless families only one person has a mobile phone.

8.     Countless families where there is only one mobile phone have more than four members in the family.

9.     The website however for some reason allows only four people to be registered with one number.  

10.  What about people who know English, are not disabled, have a smart phone and access to internet, surely at least the website is working perfectly and equitably for them? No, and that is not just because there is a shortage of vaccines. Social media is flooded with people sharing experiences such as the OTPs not reaching them

11. In  theory, ‘walk-in’ vaccine registrations are open for those aged over forty four years. In practice these are rare. Even the website discourages people from physical registrations. We are reproducing Q/4 from the FAQ on the website:

     4.     Is online registration mandatory for Covid 19 vaccination?

Vaccination Centres provide for a limited number of on-spot registration slots every day. Citizens aged 45 years and above can schedule appointments online or walk-in to vaccination centres. However, Citizens aged 18-44 years should mandatorily register themselves and schedule appointment online before going to vaccination centre. 

In general, all citizens are recommended to register online and schedule vaccination in advance for a hassle-free vaccination experience.”

 How do we use digital to create a system that gives the vaccine to the least number of people possible? 

 The design of this website seems to be an answer to the aforementioned question. (Please note dear readers that here we are restricting ourselves to the role of technology in vaccine distribution. Which is why we are not commenting on the root of the matter- the failure to procure enough vaccines.) It is difficult to not reach the conclusion that the internet should not have been involved at all.


Let’s come back to the group of people who somehow manage to access and operate the website. Are technological issues such as delayed OTPs, the website crashing the only hindrance for them? No.  


As the above image shows, people who have had the privilege to learn how to use technology with a bit more expertise than others, are enabling everyone who has more privilege in general to get access to vaccines. If access to cellphones, internet, the english language weren’t enough barriers, information about these websites and access to apps like Telegram have acted as additions. 


The result is this:

The internet and technology could and should have been used for making available transparent information about availability, supply and delivery of oxygen. Those who decided that a website is the best tool for distribution of a life saving vaccine in the middle of a pandemic must be under the belief that everyone has access to the internet. This belief however felt assaulted by doubt when it came to political rallies- which could have been easily telecast via the internet to every person’s home. 


It is clear however that the government believed that vaccines can be given from the screen of a computer or a phone but votes must be sought in person. 


The end result is that technology has only been used by the government to increase pain and suffering instead of eliminating it. Alternatively, use of technology has been punished:


India’s Supreme Court had to step in:

There has also been censorship:


As far as the internet is concerned there is one silver lining. A significant part of assistance to those suffering came from ordinary citizens who co-ordinated relief on social media. 

What have we been up to you ask?

Well currently there is one of the things keeping us occupied and something we need your help with. 

As the second wave of COVID 19 hits the Indian cities, this time rural India is also experiencing a rise in numbers. Coupled with the fragile condition of rural health infrastructure it is assumed to take a turn of the catastrophe of unimaginable scale, if ignored. 

Digital Empowerment Foundation, keeping this in view, has again launched an ICT-enabled and community-specific relief programme, "COVID-19 DIGITAL EMERGENCY RELIEF PROGRAMME 2.0", through virtual community and service facilitation. 

The 10000+ foot soldiers are being trained to work as COVID Soochnapreneurs in their communities who will implement the following activities to fulfil the outcomes:

  1. Distribution of the prevention necessities (pulse oximeters, masks, sanitisers, dry ration) to 1 million people by the COVID Soochnapreneurs.

  2. Dissemination of Information in the form of audios, videos and infographics through WhatsApp Groups/messaging.

  3. COVID Soochnapreneurs will disseminate verified helpline numbers for local aid resources through WhatsApp and Facebook.

The link to the page: https://fundraisers.giveindia.org/fundraisers/def-india-providing-relief-to-save-lives-with-cderp20 

Meanwhile:

Asheef Iqubbal from our Research and Advocacy division researched and published a report on food delivery workers, titled as Food Delivery Workers in India: emerging Entrepreneurs or informal Labour? The study highlights the deep-seated issues prevalent within the informal workforce and how they stand to be aggravated within the platforms. Since, the delivery workers are not considered traditional “employees”, these workers do not benefit from labour rights relating to pay, working hours, working conditions and collective bargaining rights which are emblematic of the informal workforce in India. It can be read here- https://www.defindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/swiggy-zomato-delivery-workers-india-entrepreneurs-labour.pdf

Before we bid adieu, something about and on the internet that may bring a smile on your face:

Until next time.

Stay Safe.


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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.