Future Tense

Indian Government to 1.4 Billion People: Want a Vaccine? Learn How to Code.

People in masks sit in spaced-out plastic chairs in a big room.
People wait to get a dose of the Covishield vaccine at a vaccination in New Delhi on Tuesday. Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

On April 28, when the Narendra Modi–led Indian government opened up vaccine registrations for all adult citizens, 29-year-old Mousumi Chatterjee felt left out.

The government said citizens should sign up on CoWIN, its COVID vaccine registration website, or download its coronavirus contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, on their phones. Vaccination slots would be made available on May 1.

But Chatterjee, a domestic worker in Kolkata, has no idea what the CoWIN website and the Aarogya Setu app are. Her mobile and internet literacy are limited to making calls, exchanging messages on WhatsApp, and browsing Facebook: the latter two only because a salesperson at a mobile store downloaded the apps on her phone and changed the language setting to Bangla, the only one she can read.

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“I have never heard of the Aarogya Setu app. I don’t know how to download apps. I’m not educated. How will I self-register?” Chatterjee said in an interview.

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While the Aarogya Setu app is available in a few regional Indian languages, including Bangla, Chatterjee was not aware that she needed to download it and register on it in order to get the vaccine, until a family she works for explained to her and offered to help her register. The CoWIN website, however, is available only in the English language.

Within minutes of registrations opening at 4 p.m. on April 28, the CoWIN website crashed. (Registration is only mandatory for those under 45; those older than 45 can simply go to a hospital to get vaccinated, assuming there’s a shot available—which is a big assumption.) To register, you had to request a one-time password. But the text messages with the one-time passwords came too slowly for many people to register successfully before their session on the site expired.

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Some still managed to register on the portal—the government boasted that more than 13 million people did on April 28. As of May 4, a total of 51 million people in the 18–44 age group had registered. But registrations don’t really matter because India is experiencing a dire shortage of vaccines, which means within seconds of opening up, slots are booked.

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Only 662,619, or 1.3 percent, of the 51 million Indian citizens in the 18–44 age group registered on the portal have been able to get their first jabs. Many, perhaps even most, of them succeeded because they had access to advanced technical skills that helped them jump the line and book a slot. In the U.S., a situation much the same arose in the beginning of this year when citizens were scrambling to find appointments due to a similar imbalance of supply and demand. In India, the situation is far worse. The Indian government has fallen way short of its own target of vaccinating citizens. Less than 2 percent of the country’s total population has been fully vaccinated, and less than 40 percent of targeted health and front-line workers are fully vaccinated.

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Meanwhile, India’s second COVID-19 wave, which strengthened in the second half of February, has only worsened. People have been begging for oxygen cylinders, medicines, hospital beds, plasma donors, and ventilators on social media. There are more dead bodies than wood available for cremating them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for not prioritizing the pandemic while permitting the continued constructing of his new residence (set to be ready by December 2022), part of the $2.6 billion Central Vista project. Recommendations from experts for a nationwide lockdown have been ignored. Citizens are angry, frustrated, and discouraged seeing no clear plan of action from the nation’s leader to manage the pandemic.

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Their helplessness has been exacerbated by an unjust vaccination system that prioritizes efficiency and high technology instead of need, loading the dice in favor of the tech-savvy elite over most of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Ahead of vaccine registration for the 18–44 age group on April 28, the government opened up CoWIN’s application programming interface to third parties. By offering tech tools like application programming interface that can only be used by software programmers, the government, in effect, has created a discriminatory arrangement that defeats the logic and urgency of a public health program. In this environment of scarcity, the government’s message seems to be: learn how to code and you can get a vaccine.

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One such person who has taken advantage of this unequal vaccination policy is Anirudh Patil, a 35-year-old finance professional based in Thane, a city just outside of Mumbai. His wife registered both of them on the Aarogya Setu app on April 29.

Patil didn’t bother checking for an appointment on May 1 because he figured that it would be next to impossible to book a slot. But the following day, his techie friend Saurabh Das called him alerting him about available slots. Patil called his wife, who, on her very first attempt, was able to book two slots on the app for the next day at a primary health center, about 25 miles away from their home, in a town called Vasind.

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Both Patil and his wife have received their first jabs of Covishield, a variant of Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by the Serum Institute of India. “There was definitely a certain amount of luck that was involved in getting the slots so quickly. Slots are getting filled in the first 20–30 seconds of them opening,” he told me.

But it wasn’t just luck. Patil’s friend Das, a 36-year-old technology consultant based in Mumbai, had himself been trying to book a slot. Even when he found some available, by the time he would log in using a one-time password, select the time, and confirm the appointment, all the slots would be booked. The CoWIN website automatically logs users out 15 minutes after logging in.

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Das then decided to take a techie shortcut: He would use the CoWIN website’s public application programming interface and filter out 18–44 age-group slots that were available at all the vaccination centers in the chosen districts on the chosen dates. The web scraper automatically searches the CoWIN website and Aarogya Setu app every five seconds and gives relevant results based on the filters. Das had been sitting in front of his screen monitoring slot availability for several districts in and around Mumbai. As soon as he saw some openings, he called Patil.

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“Writing this code helped in bypassing the time-consuming signing-in process that requires the user to input a [one-time password]. It also helps in monitoring slot availability for a longer period of time without having to keep logging in,” Das told me.

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Das isn’t alone in trying to work around the system. There are several websites (like getjab.in and under45.in) and automated groups on messaging apps and social media platforms that have cropped up in the past few days to send notifications every time a slot opens up in a user’s district or city. At the time of writing this story, 438 public scripts appeared when I ran a search for “CoWIN” on Microsoft-owned GitHub, a coding website. Nearly all these scripts do some kind of web scraping to make booking vaccination slots easier for those who know how to run them. Many of them send slot availability alerts via email or text.

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Akshay Gururaj, a 31-year-old photographer based in Bangalore, was able to find a slot through one such group on Telegram, the messaging app, called “BLR UNDER 45 APPOINTMENT ALERTS.” (BLR is short for Bangalore.)

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“As soon as the vaccine information is uploaded onto the CoWIN and Aarogya Setu database, I get a notification from this group. The slots usually go away in seconds. I was lucky that I was already signed in when I got the notification. Getting a vaccine slot is like a hackathon right now,” he told me.

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However, only a small percentage of people in the country can take advantage—or are even aware—of these workarounds. And Chatterjee, the domestic help, is certainly not one of them, making her among the most vulnerable people in the vaccination process.

Even those who are urban, educated, internet literate, and come from wealthier backgrounds cannot do much to book a slot unless they are aware of platforms that are making the booking process easier or have a techie friend who knows how to write code. A 27-year-old New Delhi–based artist who did not wish to be named said she has desperately been trying to book a slot but hasn’t had any luck. When I asked her if she had tried under45.in or getjab.in, she didn’t know what I was talking about, even though she is very active on the internet and social media.

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The fact that hundreds of other websites and bot services are being developed by common Indian citizens just to book slots on government-developed platforms not only reveals the exclusionary nature of both CoWIN and Aarogya Setu, but also sheds light on the government’s failure to put a fair and functional mechanism in place.

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Giridhar R. Babu, professor and head of life-course epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India, said that the government should not have made self-registration mandatory for anybody, whether online or offline.

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“CoWIN and Aarogya Setu are barriers for vaccination progress. We have never expected people to register on their own and come for appointments, in earlier vaccination programs,” he told me, adding that even walk-ins will not solve the problem. He believes that the government needs to microplan and organize vaccine drives by chalking out specific dates for specific districts and cities.

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The government’s vaccine policy has been widely criticized on all fronts including supply shortage, communication, pricing, and rollout by several health experts and public intellectuals.

“What we got in vaccine policy is a bizarre combination of ruthlessness and managing the headlines. … This is ad hoc social Darwinism. The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must. A perfect metaphor for our healthcare system,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s best-known intellectuals, wrote in his column in the daily newspaper the Indian Express on April 28.

People like Chatterjee on the bottom rung of the Indian society—poor, uneducated, and internet illiterate—are suffering the most.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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