Without smartphones or internet access, few young people in rural Assam get vaccinated against COVID


Silchar (Assam): Taj Uddin Laskar, 43, is a bricklayer and works as a day laborer in the construction industry. Due to the pandemic, he was confined to his home and out of work for more than a year. Working on residential plots has its drawbacks, as most people do not want to employ a workforce that has not yet received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. When asked if he could book a slot himself online, Taj Uddin replied, “I have never been to school, I can’t read or write, and I haven’t even been to school. smartphone, how am I supposed to book a vaccination slot online?

Digital access

The digital inaccessibility affecting vaccinations resulted in a temporary loss of employment opportunities not only for Taj, but also for around 10 lakh construction workers in the state of Assam. The digital divide was exposed days after the Indian government announced its national digital vaccination campaign for young people. With only 21% active smartphone users, Assam has the smallest number of smartphone users of any Indian state; the state’s percentage is well below the national average of 33%. It is therefore not surprising that out of 3.1 million people in Assam, only 30% of its young people have smartphones. Of these 30% of young people with digital access, only a small part were able to reserve a digital vaccination window from the first attempts. The rest were glued to their electronics, refreshing the CoWIN site in the hope of an empty location.

Taj Uddin Laskar at work. Photo: Pompy Paul

One of these young women, Sagorika Chakraborty (28), a guest lecturer in physics at Cachar College, Silchar, talks about how she constantly connected and disconnected from the CoWIN portal, hoping to find vacant slots. Sagorika decided to reserve vaccination slots for herself and her younger brother as soon as the Indian government announced that it was expanding its national digital vaccination campaign to young people on May 1, 2021. “It took me just five minutes to register with CoWIN, but the real struggle starts after that, ”Sagorika said. With no success in finding empty slots during the day, the brother-sister duo tried to get up early as there were rumors that the site had less traffic in the morning. The two siblings took turns waking up at 4 a.m. to find and reserve empty spots, but to no avail. “It was practically impossible to find free places on CoWIN, those who could book a slot on their own must be very lucky. After daily attempts for about a fortnight, Sagorika stopped looking for empty spots online and started waiting for the 18+ vaccination campaign to start.

While almost all Indians over the age of 18 faced problems registering and booking vaccines online, the situation was even worse for those living on the outskirts of the country. Cachar District in Assam is one of the most remote districts in India. The district shares an international border with Bangladesh, has a limited number of smartphone users and low internet penetration.

Another resident, Prasanna Shuklabaidya, 44, who runs a laundry in the Second Link Road area of ​​Silchar, said: “I have a multi-purpose phone and I use it to contact my customers to collect and deliver items. clothes.” Expressing his anguish at the online mode of booking slots for vaccines, Shuklabaidya said, “If it hadn’t been for the week-long special vaccination campaign organized by the Cachar district administration in early June. not to be inoculated so far and it would have affected my business already affected by the pandemic. “

Digital literacy

According to a study published in 2018 by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, around 90% of India’s rural population is digitally illiterate. In a situation like this, the inequitable planning of the COVID-19 digital vaccination program leaves a void in its execution at the local level and further exacerbates the socio-economic imbalance that exists in our society. Possession and ability to use a computer and / or smartphone in urban and rural areas is also scarce.

Basic digital skills

Rural Urban
Man Female Man Female
Basic computer skills 12.6% 7% 37.5% 26.9%
Basic internet skills 17.1% 8.5% 43.5% 30.1%

Source: Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, 2019

Vaccine shortages

“Many residents have had to go to Internet cafes to reserve a time slot for vaccines because they do not have access to the Internet. Many came to see me, while I was running a stationery printing company. I tried and helped as much as I could, ”explains Milu Rani Sutradhar, manager of the Meherpur gram panchayat.

“We had proposed four vaccination centers for Meherpur gram panchayat, but only one vaccination center was assigned in the area, and this center only operated on one day where 230 adults were vaccinated on a token system. without an appointment, ”Sutradhar said. .

“Currently, no center in Meherpur gram panchayat provides vaccination because there is a serious shortage of vaccines,” she added.

Milu Rani Sutradhar, responsible for the Meherpur gram panchayat, in his stationery. Photo: Pompy Paul

The poor distribution of vaccines and digital illiteracy are the two major factors affecting the vaccination campaign in this part of the country. Rural India is home to 70% of the Indian population and yet the gap is yawning in terms of vaccines administered in urban and rural areas. The shortage is true in much of the Cachar district, where according to the CoWIN dashboard, only 53% of the population received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – less than the national average of 58%. As for Assam state, 65% of the total immunization doses have been administered in the state so far, according to CoWIN dashboard.

Accessibility of vaccines

Online check-in and slot booking not only leaves the marginalized behind in the immunization campaign, but also disproportionately benefits those with access to the internet, modern gadgets, literacy, free time and more. better overall socio-economic status.

It goes without saying that while most city dwellers with easy access to resources will be vaccinated, this is not the case for the rural population. Inequitable planning of the COVID-19 vaccination program leaves a gap in the implementation of the program at the local level.

Many from Cachar district drove to neighboring Karimganj and Hailakandi districts to get their jab, as they could not find a place in their area of ​​residence.

“Yes, having a vehicle has its advantages. I could drive myself with my brother to a vaccination center in Lala, Hailakandi district, because it was impossible to get a place in my area, ”said Pallav Singh Yadav, a 26-year-old resident of Meherpur gram panchayat. in the district of Cachar. .

“Due to the ban on travel between districts in Assam, there were a lot of police patrols on the highway and they only let vehicles pass after showing the electronic registration slips. However, I didn’t mind going the distance as I got the slots after trying for five consecutive days due to the high traffic on the CoWIN site, ”Pallav added.

Volunteering and community assistance

In order to reduce the growing divide, many young people in Cachar volunteered to reserve slots for those who were unable to do so on their own. Local youth, both individually and those affiliated with social organizations, provided people with digital support.

The Paschim Ambicapur Club in Silchar is a socio-cultural club. Noting the problems people faced when booking COVID-19 vaccines, the club decided to intervene. He helped those who did not have valid ID or documents with booking slots for vaccines online, and also helped keep the crowd going at one of the busiest vaccination centers. in Cachar. “We have helped people from all walks of life register vaccines and book slots on CoWIN. It was difficult for us at the beginning because there were long queues for vaccines and most of the people who came to be vaccinated did not have a personal phone, ”said Aritra Dhar, a social worker at the club.

“Most of the people I booked vaccine slots for were smartphone owners and internet users, and despite that, they were unable to book a slot on CoWIN,” said Shobraj Chakraborty, who runs a music store in Silchar. “It shows you how time-consuming and exclusive the process can be, even for those who are tech savvy. “

“The high traffic on the CoWIN portal when booking makes the process difficult and so I was only able to book a slot after no less than five attempts,” said Saikat Das, a young local who helped create a database of ambulance and other telephone numbers. emergency services statewide. Saikat, as an individual, also helped three people by reserving online vaccination slots for them.

Paschim Ambikapur Club Covid Assistance Service. Photo: Aritra Dhar

Corrective actions

A smaller number of smartphone users and lower internet penetration have compromised a fair chance of receiving the vaccine. Given the plight of those who were unable to access vaccines through online registration, the Cachar District Administration launched a special walk-in vaccination campaign in the 28 neighborhoods of Silchar Municipality and possibly also in the gram panchayats which fall under the panchayat of Silchar Anchalik. .

“Around 49,000 beneficiaries were vaccinated with Covidshield in the 28 districts of Silchar in one week. A vaccination campaign with general practitioners has also been launched in the 8 medical blocks with a registration without appointment for all people over 18 years old ”, reported The municipal administration of Cachar.

People in all sections have benefited from the special walk-in vaccination campaign, but it has been particularly useful for people from vulnerable communities who do not have access to digital resources. People like Taj Uddin Laskar and Prasanna Shuklabaidya still wouldn’t have been vaccinated if it hadn’t been for the drive-through. The special campaign was also beneficial for people who were unable to book a slot online despite their knowledge and digital access. The fact that a record number of people have turned up for the district walk-in vaccination shows that it has been a success, especially for those who were unable to acquire the vaccine through registration and booking in. line.

“Online booking is made to taunt poor people like us,” Taj Uddin Laskar concluded. “We can hardly afford to live.

Pompy Paul is a journalist and independent researcher based in Silchar. This story was reported as part of the National Foundation of India Fellowship for Freelance Journalists.


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