It is hard to tell if the Centre’s claim that it will have over 2 billion more vaccine doses at hand between August and December 2021 is warranted, or merely wishful, as with its premature articulation of victory over the covid pandemic. Whether or not these jabs materialize, we must not let vaccine inadequacy worsen India’s problem of vaccine inequity. Apart from its obvious injustice, it could prolong our health crisis. About two-thirds of our 1.3 billion-plus people live in the countryside, large swathes of which are now in the scourge’s grip. An apparent flattening of our second wave of infections, as measured by official numbers of fickle accuracy, could mask a surge in rural areas where covid testing is non-existent and healthcare skeletal. Reports of corpses washing ashore from the Ganga point to a tragedy unfolding of an inestimable scale. An immunization drive focused on urban spaces may have worked had we done better than an average of 1.5 million doses a day. Not now. Today, we need all adults everywhere jabbed at the earliest. But the effort is loaded in favour of those with internet access and special tools to grab vaccine slots.
The overly technocratic approach taken by the government has faced criticism for good reason. It seems to ignore how a digital divide has translated into a health divide of the jabbed and jabbed-nots. While residents at almost every socio-economic level of our big cities are estimated to have one way or another—via their own devices or those of others—to log on to the Centre’s CoWin website for appointments, the picture is different in smaller places and villages. According to one study, just over a third of adults in the hinterland have internet connections. With walk-ins now entertained at very few vaccine centres, a vast number are shut out of the system. On paper, the country has a network of nearly 300,000 centrally-run Common Service Centres (CSCs), created to grant people walk-in access to the internet, but media reports suggest that very few of these are operational. By a count reported last week, the number of those registered on CoWin through CSCs is a minuscule fraction of the total registrations so far. That the CoWin app for smartphones is in English gives away its target audience. It is not just rural folks and the urban poor who are being left out, but, given the acute scarcity of jab opportunities, even the better-off who are not tech-savvy enough to use private apps that have sprung up to game the queue with software search engines which go slot-hunting on behalf of users.
We have suffered deep disparities for so long that many of us have grown inured to them. The pain this pandemic has inflicted, however, ought to concentrate our minds on the virtues of equality. Beyond being an abstract social good, one that allows superior economic outcomes, it suddenly has clear life-and-death implications. We won’t be safe till we all are. This is the abiding truism of our times. It needs to be recognized by everyone, but especially by a government that needs to redeem its credentials of governance. Instead of relying on CoWin, we must prepare for the launch of a door-to-door ‘jabs for all’ campaign across the country. Aadhaar should not play a restrictive role. A jab musn’t be seen as just another hand-out or ‘benefit’. It is in our national interest to forestall a third wave that could scar an even wider cross-section of the Indian economy.
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