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Digital Divide: Tech-savvy Indians ‘Steal’ Sparse Vaccine Registration Slots

Of 1.3 billion people, only 44.3 million — mostly those with access to the internet— have been fully inoculated against Covid-19.

NEW DELHI — As India sees a shift from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine shortage amid a deadly second Covid-19 wave, the country’s tech community has found shortcuts to book vaccine slots that cut down access for other eligible citizens.

Since the vaccination opened for the age group of 18-44 on May 1, people have been spending hours on CoWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network), the country’s vaccine registration portal, to book a slot.

Though the registration is optional for age 45 and above, the government has mandated it for those in the 18-44 category.

The inoculation drive digitally excludes a huge mass of the Indian population, especially the physically disabled or those in rural areas without internet access.

A report from December 2020 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India showed that of the 795.2 million internet subscribers in the country, only 38 percent account for users in rural India.

Since the vaccination opened for the age group of 18-44 on May 1, people have been spending hours on CoWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network), the country’s vaccine registration portal, to book a slot. (CoWIN)

The majority of India’s population resides in tier-three cities and villages, which the second Covid-19 wave has badly hit.

After about four months of starting inoculation, National Health Authority chief R.S. Sharma on May 28 said residents of rural areas could soon book vaccines by calling on the helpline number ‘1075’.

District authorities and medical staff are now also conducting awareness campaigns about vaccination drives. However, until now, only the luckiest few or the tech-savvy have been able to ace the race.

“The registrations for our district opened on May 1,” Megha Mallick, a 22-year-old journalist based in Noida, bordering India’s capital city Delhi, told Zenger News.

“But when you go to book a slot, it shows all slots are already booked. I opened the website once every day, only to realize there’s nothing. Luckily, my office arranged vaccines for all staff. My flatmate, however, is still struggling to book a slot.”

 

Several software developers and tech companies came forward with solutions to the slot unavailability problem with the government making the API (application programming interface) for the website public.

From YouTube tutorials to posts on social discussion platform Reddit — coders have been sharing hacks and automation scripts to book vaccine slots on CoWIN.

Using the open API, one can build a tool to find vaccination appointments by PIN codes or districts. The automated bots reduce the hassle of repeatedly refreshing the vaccine portal for new slots.

While Mallick’s friend still awaits a slot on CoWIN, Harsh Jain, a resident of Delhi, has helped over 30 people get registered for vaccines.

“I did it through a website ‘under45.in’,” Jain told Zenger News.

What started as a mini project for Berty Thomas now has 3 million subscribers. (Berty Thomas)

Developed by Berty Thomas, assistant vice-president at Barclays, this website alerts users through the messaging app Telegram whenever vaccine slots are available in a particular district.

“Once a user submits his state and district on our website, he gets a Telegram channel link for that district,” Thomas, a resident of southern city Chennai, told Zenger News.

“Followers of this Telegram channel receive a real-time alert as soon as the district authorities update the vaccine availability on the CoWIN app. They can then open the CoWIN website or app and book a slot instantly.”

But several people in the 18-44 category have blamed automated bots for the unavailability of slots.

The National Health Authority, responsible for implementing India’s flagship public health assurance scheme, introduced restrictions to access of CoWIN’s vaccination slots by third parties to address the issue.

Under45.in alerts users through the messaging app Telegram whenever vaccine slots are available in a particular district. (under45.in)

Each IP address can now make a maximum of 100 calls to the API server every five minutes. This, however, has not affected the accuracy of alerts given by under45.in.

“We have distributed our calls across multiple servers,” said Thomas. “So, we now have different programmers who are looking at different districts/cities. That’s allowing us to stay within those API limits overall.”

Jain, who used Thomas’s website to book slots for people, said: “It is impossible to book vaccine slots in Delhi without subscribing to such group alerts. After I got my jab, my relatives and friends started calling me to book slots for them.”

“One advantage in using under45.in is that it has separate [Telegram] groups for each district, making it easier to look for relevant slots. Other similar websites give email or SMS alerts, but Telegram is way faster.”

What started as a mini project for Thomas now has 3 million subscribers. Seeing the response for under45.in, he has recently launched ‘above45.in’. The site has already garnered 200,000 subscribers. His team is currently serving 640 districts across India.

People wait to receive their Covid-19 vaccinations in New Delhi, India. (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

A similar website, ‘GetJab.in’, went live on May 2 and got good traction. Designed by four coders, this website sends users vaccine slot alerts through email and text messages.

“The second wave has increased our commitment towards our family and community,” Azhar Hussain, one of the co-founders of GetJab.in, told Zenger News.

“So, we wanted to help by providing notifications at the right time as opposed to having people spend an inordinate amount of time just to book vaccine slots on CoWIN.”

Hussain, a product manager at Microsoft, keeps shuffling between his full-time work and his vaccine slot finder website.

“We do not have a business model behind this initiative. All we want to do is to contribute to society in our capacity. We are taking voluntary donations, 50 percent of which are going for charitable causes for Covid-19. We are planning to increase the donation percentage.”

Paytm, India’s largest fintech company, also hopped on the bandwagon to help people find vaccine slots. Its ‘COVID-19 Vaccine Finder‘, available on the Paytm Mini App Store, alerts its subscribers on the availability of vaccines.

Paytm, India’s largest fintech company, also hopped on the bandwagon to help people find vaccine slots. (@Paytm/Twitter)

But unlike independent techies who have volunteered to help people in need, private organizations could be looking at a business opportunity here.

“One reason why Paytm or other tech companies are providing such features could be to drive more traffic to their apps,” Faisal Kawoosa, founder of technology consultancy firm TechARC, told Zenger News.

Abhigyan Khargharia, a 27-year-old resident of eastern state Assam, used Paytm’s vaccine finder to book slots for him and his brother.

“I recommend people sign up for such slot booking alert systems,” Khargharia told Zenger News. “By doing this, you won’t have to wait for hours in front of your phone or computer.”

He, however, said Paytm’s updates weren’t quick enough.

A nurse administers a vaccine at a clinic in Aakhtadi, Tonk District, Rajasthan, India. (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

“Slots for Jorhat [a district in Assam] would get over in less than 10 seconds, and Paytm updates would arrive 30-60 seconds after the slots opened.”

But slot unavailability is not the only problem that CoWIN users are struggling with.

Delayed one-time passwords on the CoWIN app, getting a vaccination certificate without receiving the jab, certificates with incorrect details, delay in or no receipt of certificates are other issues bothering users.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the National Health Authority did not respond to requests for comment from Zenger News on the issues faced by CoWIN users.

Due to a shortage of vaccines, several states like Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Gujarat on the western coast, and southern state Telangana were unable to start the drive for the youngest age group in most districts and began only in June.

A health worker prepares a jab of the Covaxin coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center. (Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

Kawoosa said that if the government fails to deal with the two problems at hand — vaccine shortage and mandatory CoWIN registration, private firms might soon start cashing in by charging people for vaccine slots.

“Private companies have the resources to monetize the loopholes in this vaccine registration system. While we can trust reputed organizations as they follow a data privacy policy, we need to be careful of new websites that are cropping up. Users may end up sharing confidential or irrelevant data, which fraudsters could misuse,” he said.

Several fake websites and applications imitating the CoWIN portal have already hit the market.

The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) has recently warned against a widely circulating text message that falsely claims to offer an app to let users register for the Covid-19 vaccine in India.

“The SMS message carries a link that installs a malicious app on Android-based devices, which essentially spreads itself via SMS to victims’ contacts,” the advisory states.

As of June 4, India has 1,635,993 active cases and has registered 340,702 deaths since the pandemic broke out. About 223 million have got vaccinated until now, of which only 44.4 million have been administered both doses.

(Edited by Amrita Das and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan)