Questions of fairness arise amid high-tech hunt for COVID-19 vaccines in country

Indian tech experts have written software code and designed websites to help people book scarce COVID-19 vaccinations online, raising concern about an unfair advantage for the tech-savvy and jeopardising chances of an equitable vaccine rollout.

India has faced criticism for a slow vaccine campaign as it battles the second wave of coronavirus infections that is seeing about 350,000 new cases recorded every day. Only 2% of its 1.3 billion population have been fully immunized.

The government further opened up vaccination for adults from May 1 but registration on its CoWIN website is mandatory for those between the ages of 18 and 44. Slots are hard to get as demand far outstrips supply.

In a bid to streamline the process, computer experts have used the publicly available code of the CoWIN platform to create websites that post results every few minutes after running automated searches on the government website.

Alerts are sent over email and routed to several Telegram app chat groups where thousands are waiting.

Berty Thomas, 35, automated a search to book himself a slot then created a website – under45.in – which checks for slots and sends alerts to about 100,000 people in 60 Telegram groups in various cities.

“I feel happy I’m able to use my skills to help people get vaccines,” said Thomas, an investment banker based in the southern city of Chennai.

Shyam Sunder said his website – getjab.in – was notifying users by email when slots become available. Some 80,000 people from 400 districts across the country had registered with his site, he said.

But the technological workarounds are facing criticism from those who say they sacrifice the goal of vaccine equity in a country where many people – especially in rural areas – do not have the digital skills to join the online hunt.

“What we need: Free and equitable vaccination policy. What we have got: Techies making use of scripts to quickly book off the entirety of whatever little vaccine slots that open up,” Twitter user Rakshith said.

R.S. Sharma, chairman of the government panel managing the CoWIN platform, told Reuters security measures were in place and there was no unfair use of the booking platform, which he said was getting 55,000 hits a second.

‘STRESSFUL LOTTERY’

To book a slot, users of the CoWIN website need to log in with their mobile phone number and get a one-time password, before beginning their hunt of vaccine centres via an area code or district name.

In the short time that takes, slots often get snapped up.

But the automated alerts offer no guarantees. A Wednesday morning alert for some shots posted on one Telegram group for Bengaluru city had more than 100 comments, with only a few saying they succeeded, while others complained slots vanished in no time.

“It showed me 80 slots but it got booked before I could even get the OTP,” said one user.

Authorities in the city of Mumbai have faced criticism for issuing a notice on Twitter on Tuesday telling people to get ready as limited slots were opening in minutes, wishing the hopeful “all the best”.

“Playing a stressful lottery every day is in extremely bad taste,” Twitter user Nanaki wrote.

In their defence, Mumbai authorities wrote on Twitter they were trying their best and just wanted to keep the communication “light”.

Those in rural areas with limited or no access to high-speed internet or smartphones are bound to lose out.

In a village in the desert state of Rajasthan in the west, 43-year-old tailor Sewli Bhatti’s said his family had no smartphone so he sought help from a teacher, who has been inundated with requests to register on the CoWIN website.

Driver Dhananali Bariha, 28, in the eastern state of Odisha, said he wanted to get vaccinated but was stumped by the online registration.

“I have no idea how to do it. I have not heard about CoWIN,” he told Reuters.

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