Lata Pali*, a 25-year-old woman from Lacchipur, a village more than 300kms from the capital city of Bhubaneswar says that she hasn’t been vaccinated yet. “I don’t know how to apply for the vaccine. I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t even know which website to go to for the vaccine,” she says.
Lata has dry cough since the last two weeks. “I haven’t seen a doctor yet because there’s no one who can take me to the hospital at Narayanpur. My family doesn’t own a vehicle. I consulted the local compounder who prescribed me two cough syrups,” Lata wheezes as she speaks.
The nearest hospital from Lachhipur is 3 kilometres away. However, it does not have the facility for COVID-19 testing. The hospital does not have a doctor. One has to travel to Narayanpur, a village in the same district around 20-25kms from Lachhipur to get a COVID test done. “Vaccines are also expected be provided at Narayanpur,” she says.
Lata lost one of her relatives from the village few days ago. “She was immediately rushed to Burla as her oxygen level started dropping. She was on oxygen support before she died”, said Pali. Burla, 92 kilometres from Lachhipur is a locality in the city of Sambalpur with a government run Medical Institute and Hospital known to offer comparatively better healthcare facility in the region.
The second wave of COVID-19 has started percolating into the rural pockets of the country. As the death toll stands at 2,76,947 with 33,87,669 active cases on May 17, India gasps for breath over a dwindling healthcare infrastructure and a mysterious vaccination programme still unfathomable to many.
Noihrit Gogoi, a 22-year-old student activist from Tinsukia, an industrial town situated 480kms north-east of Guwahati says that he has been trying to book a slot since the CoWIN portal opened for his age group. “There is a certain time of the day that the website allows booking. The slots fill up with the blink of an eye”, he says.
In April, the Prime Minister of India announced the third phase of vaccination with people between the 18-45 age group will be eligible for vaccination from May 1. Registration is mandatory to take the vaccine. Registration and booking a slot can be done via CoWIN website, Aarogya Setu App and UMANG App.
Pragya is a 22-year-old entrepreneur from Bhubaneswar got vaccinated on May 12 by registering through the CoWIN website. She could book the slot in her second attempt. The vaccination centre was 3 kilometres away from her home. “There was proper social-distancing. All COVID-guidelines were being followed. The vaccination process was smooth”, said Pragya.
According to the online data provided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 18,29,26,460 Indians have received at least the first dose of vaccine by May 17, 2021. These were the people who stood victorious in the tussle for vaccines with virtue of their luck and privilege. Pragya was one of them.
Sarah, a law student residing in Delhi was also a part of the statistic. She had to travel 13 kilometres to get her first jab. “I was able to book a slot after trying for 3-4 days. I was accompanied by a friend to the centre. We changed two autos to reach the place”, she said. Sarah learnt about the CoWIN portal and the registration process from an Instagram post online.
The government of India rolled out a phase-wise national vaccination drive on January 16, 2021. It covered frontline workers in the first phase and people older than 60 years and those above 45 years with comorbidities in the second. The third phase was unrolled from May 1. In order to avoid chaos and over-crowding at vaccination centres, it was made compulsory for people falling between 18-44 years to register online before taking the vaccine. Walk-in vaccinations for this age group is not allowed.
Simran, who had her first jab at a government health centre in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh said that there were a lot of people in queue for vaccine without booking the slot. “They had no idea about the online registration process. I gave them my number and offered to help in booking the vaccine online”, she said.
The centre’s masterplan for vaccination, beginning from registering online to freezing slots to being able to travel to get the jab and stand in long queues for hours in the scorching heat of May, appears to have been rolled out on whimsical assumptions of a “new” India: An India for those who can afford it. One has to have a smartphone, high-speed internet, digital literacy and a fully functional vehicle to be able to avail the luxury of India’s COVID-19 vaccination facility. In this highly exclusionary, ‘fastest-fingers first’ vaccination drive played out at the mercy of the CoWIN app, resembling a game of the survival of the fittest, it is evidently the upper-caste, upper-class and privileged elite who are ahead of the game, even as the country faces a massive vaccine shortage.
Amidst the sale of vaccines in the open market, as the centre suddenly pushes the vaccine gap and the states struggle to meet demands of oxygen cylinders, hospitals and vaccines, the rural and marginalised population of India frightfully awaits its first dose. Meanwhile, the digitally-savvy urban class folks have booked their slots in their villages to avoid the rush of city vaccination centres, and are now headed home to get themselves vaccinated.
Featured image source: indianexpress.com