This article was published on May 7, 2021

India’s vaccination program has turned into a rat race online

India’s vaccination program has turned into a rat race online Image by: Unsplash/Ivan Diaz
Ivan Mehta
Story by

Ivan Mehta

Ivan covers Big Tech, India, policy, AI, security, platforms, and apps for TNW. That's one heck of a mixed bag. He likes to say "Bleh." Ivan covers Big Tech, India, policy, AI, security, platforms, and apps for TNW. That's one heck of a mixed bag. He likes to say "Bleh."

India opened up its vaccination program for the 18-45 age group on May 1. To get the vaccine, people in this age bracket have to go through a two-stage process. First, register on the government-run CoWin portal. And second, book a slot in their area to get their first shot.

While the first part is easy, finding a slot is proving to be a nightmare for people across the country. When the central government announced the expansion of the program in April, it mentioned that vaccine manufacturers in India — currently only two of them — have to supply 50% of their monthly production to the central government and the remaining 50% could be given to states and private hospitals.

India’s CoWin Portal for vaccination

Notably, vaccination for the 18-45 age group could only be done through doses supplied to states and private hospitals. Just before the vaccination program was about to go live, several states noted that they didn’t have the necessary doses to start the vaccination rollout at full throttle.

Despite these challenges, vaccination for people older than 18 started on May 1. But because of the digital nature of bookings and limited slots, it has become a race of frantically looking at the internet all day to find slots and using tools to get a reservation. And if you’re not a hyperactive internet user, good luck finding a slot.

In this story, we’ll take a look at various ways people are scrambling to get vaccination booking.

Bots at work

After registration for the 18-45 age group opened on April 28, slots in select cities began to show up the next day. However, there was no easy way to search for it at that time (the CoWin site now has an age filter). So, programmer Berty Thomas made a tool to check open slots for the specified age group for your district. Later, he introduced Telegram alerts for some cities too.

Credit: search for open vaccination slots for 18-45 age group

While states have started the vaccination rollout for anyone over 18 years of age, there are only a limited number of centers and slots available per day. And whenever slots open up, they get booked within seconds. So more people like Thomas made tools for themselves, and later opened them up for everyone’s consumption.

There are a few city-specific Twitter bots that continuously tweet slots that open up in various areas. People based out of Delhi and Bengaluru told me that they enabled notifications for these accounts and that helped them get their vaccines.

All these bots on Telegram and Twitter are useful if you’re hyperactive on the internet and can log in to the CoWin portal within seconds and book a slot. However, several people told me that despite getting an alert and logging on to the CoWin portal quickly, they found that the slots were already booked.

Mumbai-based Peter Kotikalapudi subscribed to these groups, but hasn’t had any success yet. “I’m really angry & frustrated now with this whole process,” he said. Several other users I talked to echoed similar disappointments of not getting a booking despite subscribing to a few vaccine notification services. 

However, a lot of these bots might be ineffective soon as CoWin’s API portal specified on May  5 that its public API shows cached data for slots that might be 30 minutes old. That might be too old when slots are getting reserved in seconds.

Sandip Baradiya, a startup co-founder, who built a tool for alerts, said that while his site helped some people find slots, this new limit might change its effectiveness.

Hack your way in

While these bots could help you know about available slots on the CoWin site, you have to still log in and book one. A few clever programmers found a way around that to automate the whole system and get a reservation for themselves and their families.

RS Sharma, CEO of the National Health Authority (NHA), which handles the CoWin portal, recently said in an interview with NDTV that it’s impossible to automate the reservation as you need to login through an OTP (One Time Password) to access bookings.

I talked to more than three developers who told me that it’s possible to program bots for booking. Here’s how it roughly works: simulate a browser to start the login process and enter your phone number, read the OTP delivered by the site through Google Messages API, and once you’ve successfully logged in, you can use the private APIs to look for slots and book an appointment.

There are several repositories on GitHub right now that are designed to complete this task. Alternatively, some other scripts work after logging in with OTPs manually.

Sharma, who threw an open challenge to engineers on Twitter yesterday, was far from convinced about automation despite several people explaining the methods of execution for the code. A developer told me that they were ready to show the demo to the authorities, but feared that they’ll face retaliation from them instead of fixing the system.

We’ve written to NHA for comments, and we’ll update the story if we hear anything.

CoWin bugs

Even if you get through all the hoops, CoWin portal itself has a ton of issues. The portal is issuing vaccination certificates to people who didn’t get a slot. This is harmful, as they’re not yet protected against COVID-19 and the system shows that they’ll be eligible for another slot in four-six weeks. To avoid this, the authorities are planning to introduce a 4-digit pin that you have to give at the vaccination center to verify your booking.

Plus, as Medianama noted in its report last week, people are finding slots booked against their number when they didn’t reserve one.

Also, if you’re rescheduling your slot for another time and center that has a different vaccine, your certificate might show the vaccine booked for the original appointment — that could become a hindrance in getting your second shot. The NHA and developers of the portal need to weed out these anomalies to ensure there are no hiccups in the vaccination process.

The digital divide

India has more than 500 million smartphone users and more than 600 million internet users. With India’s estimated population of more than 1.3 billion, a large chunk of people are not exposed to the internet and they can’t access the CoWin portal. Currently, only people aged more than 45 can walk into a vaccination center and get a shot.

That means almost 600 million 18-45 year olds have to rely on a portal with only hundreds of slots opening every day. There’s such a rush to get vaccines, in the western state of Gujarat, people are traveling to centers more than 100km away to get a vaccine. Many people are also turning up at the centers thinking that registering on CoWin is enough to get a vaccine; they’re unaware that you need to book a slot also to get a shot.

While internet-savvy people are already feeling the anxiety of trying to book an appointment every day, many folks in rural areas are unaware of how the process works.

Back in my hometown, Bhuj, a small place in western India, my neighbor asked me, “How do I know when slots open up? I don’t use Twitter or any fancy apps.” Many such people who are unaware of these digital tools have given up hope and are ready to wait it out till walk-ins are allowed.

For more than two weeks now, the country has registered more than 300,000 daily COVID-19 cases. Hospitals are packed, there’s a lack of oxygen supplies and medicines, and amid all this vaccination seems the only hope to get out of this dangerous surge. The central government has just placed an order for vaccination a week ago, and states are yet to get their quota.

While having enough vaccines is a logistical and manufacturing topic, how they’re distributed is currently a digital issue.

Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India, a health-focused non-profit, said, “The people shouldn’t have to come to the government, and the government should go to the people. Having vaccine registration on the digital platform alone wouldn’t work. Authorities need to partner with volunteers to survey rural areas and figure out the needs of the marginalized community.”

Currently, the vaccination system for 18- to 45-year old is heavily favored towards privileged people with internet connectivity and access to special tools. India needs to make this system more just so there’s equal distribution of these lifesaving meds across all classes.

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