COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Reveals India’s Digital Divide | News on the coronavirus pandemic

It’s 2:00 a.m. and Ananya Maskara’s face is lit up by her smartphone as she nervously scrolls through a list, looking for a green or yellow tab indicating that a COVID-19 vaccination window is available at New Delhi, the capital of India.

For anyone between the ages of 18 and 44, securing a spot in India’s expanded immunization campaign – already plagued by shortages and political wrangling – is like buying tickets to a rock concert where popular groups hang out. sell in minutes.

“It was … a roller coaster of emotions,” the 19-year-old told AFP news agency about her frenzied search for several days to find a place on online vaccination portals or on applications from India.

“It was really difficult… A lot of my friends haven’t had a place yet and they are still waiting.”

Maskara, like millions of young Indians terrified by the current spike in infections, is rushing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus after the country opened its vaccination campaign to all adults this month.

But the expansion has come with restrictions, including only online registrations for 18-44 year olds, blocking up to half of India’s population, especially in poor and rural areas, which have no smartphone or Internet access.

A report The Indian Express newspaper said Thursday that 85% of those who have been vaccinated since May 1 belong to just seven of the 28 states, raising “critical questions about vaccine fairness.”

‘Better chances of winning the lottery’

Many states in India are also grappling with vaccine shortages, which means that places available for the 600 million people in the 18-44 cohort now eligible for vaccines are limited.

Maskara eventually managed to find a place, but many more are still in desperate search.

“I have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the vaccine,” one Mumbai-based Twitter user grumbled.

People sit in an observation area after being inoculated with a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the BKC Jumbo vaccination center in Mumbai [File: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

So far, only 3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people – or 39.5 million – are fully immunized, having received both doses. Another 10.6 percent received just their first hit.

Technicians have developed workarounds to help users in some cities where slots open at random times of the day and fill in a minute or two.

Berty Thomas, 35, a Chennai-based hobbyist programmer and business analyst, has created a tool that alerts users through the Telegram messaging app when slots in their neighborhood are open. Already, more than 400,000 subscribers have signed up.

“My current goal is to extend these alerts to several small towns and villages across the country,” Thomas told AFP, adding that some users wanted to book for relatives in regional and rural areas.

“(Getting slots) has been a problem, especially in villages where internet is scarce. So the only way is… for people who have Internet access to help those who don’t. “

Local media claim that some families have even traveled long distances to secure slots for their younger members.

Devang Bhatt, 28, told AFP that after days of searching the vaccine portal for a niche in Ahmedabad, western Gujarat, he found one on the outskirts of the city.

“It was tiring, but it was worth it,” Bhatt said of his vaccination trip.

No internet, no vaccination

But for Seema, a cleaning lady working in the northern town of Lucknow in the state of Uttar Pradesh – which has been ravaged by the virus – getting the vaccine seems unlikely.

“I don’t have access to the Internet… Some boys in my neighborhood have a smartphone but they don’t know how to use it for this (registration),” the 40-year-old woman who bears a name told AFP. .

“(The government) should think of people like us. Every day, I run the risk of exposing myself to the disease because I work for three households. I wish I could get vaccinated.

Experts say the government should allow people to pass through and get bitten at vaccination centers – a measure already introduced for people over 45.

Authorities should also consider “bringing vaccines to people rather than bringing them in,” Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, told AFP. He suggested measures like mobile vaccination clinics in remote areas.

For Mohendra Sharma, who does not own a cell phone, such changes cannot come soon enough.

“We need a door-to-door vaccination system. Those who don’t have a smartphone, what will they do? The 26-year-old told AFP in a milk shop in New Delhi where he works.

“I am worried for my family and myself if we do not get vaccinated.”

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