Digital divide, the perfectly rhyming phrase suggesting class difference over access to internet and gadgets, is affecting Kerala's aggressive Covid vaccination drive like elsewhere in the country.
Local body representatives of rural areas are often facing the anger of their people as those from even distant town areas with faster networks grab the slots open for vaccination at village health centres. The rural population, meanwhile, struggle to get a slot through the mandatory CoWin portal with their poor connectivity.
The central government on Tuesday ordered that pre-registration for vaccination and prior booking of appointment is not mandatory. According to the order, anyone aged 18 years and above can directly go to the nearest vaccination centre and gets oneself registered. Even then confusion prevailed over availability of doses.
Take the case of Vellavoor panchayat in the southern end of Kottayam district. People from even Ettumanoor, some 40 km from the village, have been coming to the Family Health Centre at Vellavoor for the vaccine shots even as the local population struggled to get a slot, according to local body representatives.
“Booking usually starts at 7pm. By the time the CoWin portal loads with the connectivity available in our areas, those with access to faster internet would have already booked the available slots. Even if someone manages to get a slot by sheer luck, the centre will be at some distant places. It's an irony that while people from even other districts line up in front of the PHC here, the poor people in the panchayat have to hire an autorickshaw to get to the other end of the district for vaccination," Sreejith Vellavoor, member of Vazhoor Block Panchayat, told Onmanorama.
He questioned the logic behind forcing the people to travel like that at a time when the government has been urging the people to avoid travelling as far as possible.
Digital divide in vaccine distribution has already been acknowledged by the government. Health Minister Veena George had on Monday said that a drive would be started for ordinary citizens who are not familiar with the online registration process. She said it at a high-level meeting held to discuss the action plan to face a possible third wave of the pandemic.
Vaccine doses are distributed district-wise and people have to book a date and slots in the vaccination centres listed on the CoWin portal, managed by the central government, as per availability. With limited availability, it becomes nearly impossible for people with poor connectivity and digital literacy book slots. Smarter people have also been using certain apps to track the availability of slots and book them instantly.
The crisis in vaccination, induced by digital divide, has been reported from across the state. Santhosh Kumar, a member of Kulathoor panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district, also echoed Sreejith's concerns. He said the poor people have often been at the receiving end with the mandatory online booking.
Vaccine reservation a solution?
Sreejith suggested a 'vaccine reservation' as a possible solution to bridge the digital divide. He said a portion of the vaccines allotted to a local body has to be reserved for the people of that area. "Health workers have to promptly distribute the reserved doses to the people as per the priority list available with them. A committee comprising healthcare workers and people's representatives have to be made to monitor the vaccination process," he said. He has also submitted the suggestions to the health minister.
Online registration was made mandatory after people crowded vaccination centres when spot registration was allowed in the initial stages. However, now each panchayat has prepared a ward-wise list of people to be vaccinated as per priority. With the list, the authorities can coordinate spot registration as per availability of the doses without causing crowds.
Top official Rajeev Sadanandan, who is the chief advisor to the chief minister on Covid, said the government can consider bringing back spot registration.
“Reservation of vaccine doses will not help as the elite will book all slots.
This has to be changed and local decision makers should be trusted and allowed to monitor and facilitate to cover those without access. Spot registration was cancelled by the state government. So they can easily bring it back and use it to ensure equity in vaccine access,” he said.
He also said that if monitoring shows that some local body has lesser coverage, special vaccination camps should be held to cover the deficit. Local bodies can mobilise people in their priority list to ensure that they are vaccinated.
The Supreme Court had on May 31 posed searching questions to the Centre on the need for mandatory registration on the CoWIN app for people to get vaccinated without keeping in mind the real 'digital India' situation.
A special bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L N Rao and S Ravindrabhat said that since the Centre has made CoWIN registration mandatory for vaccination, how is it going to address the issue of digital divide facing the country.