Digital disparities become determinants of vaccine coverage

Lockdown impacted millions of migrant and daily wage workers including house helpers who are stuck in a deluge of depleting health and wealth. As India proceeds towards the vaccination drive for all 45+ and 18+ population, the authorities conveniently scale out families with low socio-economic status, low levels of education, income, and occupation. 65% of India’s population which comes under the ‘rural population’ get excluded due to inaccessibility, lack of awareness, resources and tools.

Farida, a domestic worker in Patna and a single mother, draws a line between how the pandemic that made comfort of home a solace for some, is detrimental for others.

“I pass each day remaining ignorant to the reality. I can’t afford to hide myself in the house as it’s a dead end for me both the ways. I have three kids to feed and take care of. If I sit back fearing COVID-19, we will starve and if I contract the disease by going out, even then I’ll die. So, it’s better to take a chance. I got to know about the vaccine through my mistress but I don’t know anything else about it. I have no clue about where and how to get the vaccine from and whether I’m eligible for it,” Farida told Maktoob.

Puja Kaushik from Patna, who’s been involved in social work since the beginning of this pandemic points out that the right awareness related to COVID-19 is still missing. Right awareness means the actual symptoms, precautions, favorable treatment are still not circulated to the core of the society. People using the internet, having good network connections have access to information but the groups that are deprived of such connections are unfamiliar with correct information related to coronavirus.

Puja added, “Now the knowledge of vaccines is one more challenge, various forms of media like radios, newspapers and even the display media needs to be more and more active to spread the benefits of vaccination. Even getting all the access to information, we are witnessing misinformation, the fake spread of news related to the vaccine, then the one who is still not evident about the vaccination procedure and its benefits might face many fallacies.”

One that’s unsound to the homeless, labourers, contractual workers, domestic, sanitation cleaners and other low income groups who are not so tech savvy and can hardly afford a smartphone or internet facility. They are oblivious to the registration methods and necessity of the vaccine drive. The mode of delivery and awareness is certainly partial and unclear for a large segment of the society. Shortage of vaccine in several states has complicated the process even more when even the registered 18+ are not getting slots due to soaring demands and limited supply across the nation. Online facilitation of the process leaves behind the poor beneficiaries, widening the digital divide in the country.

More and more apps and websites are looping in to book vaccine slots for people, the bottom-line remains that it only caters to smartphone and digitally equipped users. The 75th round of National Sample Survey (July201-June 2018) shows that only 4.4% rural households have a computer, against 14.4 per cent in urban areas, with just 14.9 per cent rural households having access to the internet against 42 per cent households in urban areas. Similarly, only 13 per cent people of over five years of age in rural areas have the ability to use the internet against 37 per cent in urban areas.

Akanksha Sharma, a counseling psychologist with Optum tells us that individuals from rural regions have very limited access to facilities that advertise on digital platforms or social media.

She told Maktoob: “Language, literacy and communication plays a key role in enabling any information to reach the masses. If awareness about vaccines were propagated through telephonic helplines or even multi-lingual sms’ by state-run facilities, there were chances of reaching more and more people. There’s not only a need to regulate facilities but also educate on a grass-root level. There’s also a psychological interconnection to this which enfolds the taboos and stigma around the disease.”

Another sanitation worker from Patna, Shaheena shared that there has been no official information or announcement given to them about getting vaccinated.

“My eldest son has a smartphone but we have never received any vaccine related information through SMS or on whatsapp. I don’t even know the name, cost or method of vaccination. I’m not educated enough to know what vaccine I’m supposed to get. A few people were distributing medicines in my area but I didn’t take any because I’m too scared to take any injection or medicine without knowledge”, says Shaheena.

The fear and confusion propagated earlier in the month of January about allergic reactions combined with fake news and lapses in reliable data about the vaccine had prevented people from turning up to get the jab.

On questioning the State Health Society of Bihar about the implications of vaccination programme and its attention in rural pockets, there was no response from the department.

As COVID-19 continues to take endless lives impartially, many can all see privilege play its part on several levels. The poor-income families of India have been the worst hit and are the most vulnerable victims of this unprecedented catastrophe. The concept of digital India that was conceived in 2014 has met several ups and downs. The vision could easily be called valorous as the country was still at the center of transformation. In the midst of the pandemic, digital infrastructure has laid its ground but it still lacks a societal transformation. Mobilization of people for the vaccine is vividly disproportionate, biased and heightens inequality.