Vaccination should have been easy, given our large production capacities, successful past mass vaccination, and the advanced logistical infrastructure of our election machinery, which could have been used. Instead, even affluent urban Indians are struggling to access an indigenously produced vaccine.
My desk looks set up for a hi-tech operation of sorts. Multiple gadgets remain open.
On my computer screen is the current goldmine – the CoWIN website – which holds the key to my resumption of a partially normal life. The VN18+ Telegram group – which instantly shows up available vaccination slots in my hometown of Ahmedabad, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bastion of Gujarat – perpetually lights up my phone screen. On my iPad, I have the Aarogya Setu app open, originally set up to detect COVID-19 cases in the vicinity. My eyes multitask between the gadgets, ensuring all three remain under constant vigilance.
I energise myself with a stronger than usual dose of caffeine. It was 5 am after all, and I’d heard that early morning and late nights were your best bet for finding a slot. The owl life does come in handy sometimes, like when you need to book a vaccine slot for yourself: You’re fresh during late nights and you don’t sleep till the morning either way.
I fixate my eyes on the Telegram screen, whilst thousands more Amdavadis join the group, only stiffening the competition for a jab. Every 30 seconds, I refresh the CoWIN website on my computer screen. I’m almost amused that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of fellow Indians are doing exactly what I’m doing right now. My heart warms with the sense of community that this thought inspires, even in the face of stiff competition.
But as they say, a watched phone never rings. Yet, the second I depart for the washroom after holding it in too long already, my Telegram beeps. And just like that, three slots disappear by the time I flush the toilet.
Days go by, the month of May ends, and the amusement and dedication soon morph into despair and frustration. For years, as my life took unexpected twists and turns, I’d grappled with instability, loneliness and existential questions regarding my future. The pandemic had only accelerated my prevalent difficult life circumstances and thrown them further off gear.
Ever since my return to India last year from Brussels – the European Union’s de facto capital where I worked – I’d lived like a hermit within the four walls of my house, with my adopted stray cats as my primary company. I was a dutiful citizen, putting neither myself nor others in harm’s way by travelling about, whilst patiently awaiting a reliable vaccine.
On 1 May, the Indian government opened up its vaccination programme to include those in the 18-45 age group. But getting the mandatory digital vaccination slot, amidst an abject shortage of doses and supply constraints in a country of 1.3 billion, is akin to winning the lottery. Yet, why should a raging pandemic be a deterrent for Prime Minister Modi to subject his citizens to what he loves best – standing in lines and queues, whether physical or virtual?
My friends across the globe jokingly advised me to fly to the Maldives or Bangladesh to get access to an Indian vaccine, given how India had exported over 66 million doses abroad.
Reality was stark and sobering. With my trio of devices, network of human connections, and overall privileges, I couldn’t get access to a vaccine amidst a relentlessly raging pandemic. I thought about the millions of Indians without a smartphone, without internet, and without access to quality education. The digitally dependent and tech-centric nature of the vaccine rollout had only exacerbated these barriers and divides, and widened the gap between the haves and have-nots. Those with the means to travel far-off distances – and lucky enough to hit the jackpot for slots in nearby towns or villages – likely received their first jabs at the cost of a less able, less tech-savvy local in that area.
Only last month, I was focused on the subject of EU-India relations and the grand virtual summit that had just transpired. A bombastic connectivity partnership had been signed. But it feels like a parallel reality now, an illusion – this talk of securing the Indo-Pacific and undertaking joint connectivity projects in other countries and digital transitions, whilst even affluent Indians in urban areas struggle to get their hands on an indigenously produced vaccine during a deadly pandemic.
Pharma is one of India’s greatest strengths. I looked back to 2020 when I proudly mused how vaccination would be an area where Indians would be better placed than the rest of the world, bearing in mind our large production capacities, lower reliance on imports, successful past mass vaccination drives, and the advanced logistics and infrastructure of our grand election machinery, which could be used to vaccinate the world’s second-largest population.
Getting vaccinated should be my fundamental right in a pandemic. It shouldn’t have to be a lottery of speed, luck and timing.
The distant dream of a digital India was quickly fading, replaced with unprecedented government inefficiency and the ground realities of the country’s population.
Shairee Malhotra is the Foreign Affairs Editor of Freedom Gazette and the 2020 South Asia Fellow of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy program. She has previously worked with the European External Action Service - the official foreign policy arm of the European Union and has an MA in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London.