The race to get vaccinated – Fastest finger first
In all the chaos on the vaccination front, one core aspect has missed the attention it deserves. This is to with the core design of the CoWIN portal itself.
I noticed it purely by chance as I sought to get my daughter vaccinated. We have been unsuccessfully trying for the last few days to get an appointment. This is despite being tech savvy myself, and having the benefit of having an even savvier daughter and additional support from my office.
Due to the fast disappearing vaccine stock at various outlets and the policies decreed by the Government, there is a tremendous sense of insecurity over the shortage of this key commodity even as the pandemic rages and continues to ravage everyone and everything. As expected, the shortage became evident from May 1 when the 18-45 category – about 600 million of our young citizens – became eligible to get vaccinated. Given the extreme shortage, the Government mandated a “ no walk-ins” policy and allowed vaccination only for bookings through the CoWIN portal. That sounds reasonable. The health minister went to the extent of celebrating the fact that the system did not crash on May 1 due to heavy registration traffic ! That was perhaps misplaced, given the vaccine shortage, but so far so good.
The next few days were full of fun and games for those who tried to get a slot. Given the primary design of the portal, the concept of “fastest finger first”, popularised by TV shows, was put to shame. Vaccination slots opened up – at random times throughout the day– and got filled up in a matter of 5 seconds ! Yes, I have timed it. By the time a registered user got through the process of pin codes, OTPs, etc., all slots would be taken. This could mean only one of two things – either some of our immensely tech savvy generation had created scripts to automate the entire process to beat the queue or, very simply, and more likely, people were glued to their phones or laptops with a smartphone in tow throughout the day. It would seem the vaccinations were meant only for those who possessed all three of the following personal characteristics : tech savviness, enormous time at their disposal, and finally, the gift of immensely fast neurological responses! These were the chosen few who deserved to be saved first !
This process completely eliminates those who remain on the fringes (or do not possess any of these abilities) from getting a slot any time soon. I cannot even think of the predicament of those of who do not possess a smartphone, or a laptop, or blazing connectivity, or indeed the need to be gainfully employed throughout the day to earn a living.
Any hope of overcoming Covid makes it necessary for all of us to be inoculated ; and given a vaccine shortage is certain at least till July, there is an urgent need to apply our best minds to change the design principles of the portal to eliminate this huge barrier placed ,howsoever inadvertently, in the success of the vaccination program. It is fairly simple if one thinks through the primary needs of the population and the desirable outcomes of the vaccination strategy : inoculate all, do so systematically in a predictable manner, and do so without any inherent bias to any segment of the population based on either expertise or time availability or both being a relevant factor.
The suggested fundamental design of the CoWIN portal should therefore be structured around the following three steps : one, allow people log in at any time from anywhere and express their preferred centres (up to three, say) in the locations sorted by pin codes ; two, configure the system to aggregate the information and then validate the availability by individual vaccination centres ; three, given the shortage of vaccines, conduct a random lottery to pick the lucky ones. The system then sends out messages to the concerned person with a maximum of again, say, three choices of dates and centres. QED.
This will eliminate the problems faced by those wanting to be vaccinated. This will also eliminate the possibility of hoarding vaccines by controlling replenishment of each service provider’s stock. For those being vaccinated there will be enough time to plan their daily schedules instead of the current situation. Furthermore, it will eliminate reported issues with respect to the tech savvier population going to primary healthcare centres in rural districts to obtain the shots whilst depriving the local population in those areas. Most issues of logistics, supply chains and wastage of vaccines due to inefficient intrastate allocation and mismatch of supply and demand at individual centres can also be addressed through this.
RS Sharma is one the best tech administrators we have, given the experience the nation has had on the Aadhaar project (under the visionary leadership of Nandan Nilekani ), the Income Tax projects, etc. If he is given the time to redesign the CoWIN system to accommodate the 600 million potential vaccinees in the 18-45 category, it will be a substantive step forward even as we use our energies in fighting Covid at the individual level and organise vaccine availability at the national level.
The inherent inequity of unequal economic structures or tech skills cannot be the unstated intent driving the vaccination strategy.
Prabal Basu Roy
The author is a director, and an Advisor to Chairmen of corporate boards.