By Varisha Sharma,
The beginning of the Vaccination drive 2021 came as a respite for people amidst the pandemic. It is the single most essential aspect of battling against the deadly virus that has brought the world to a standstill. The first phase of the vaccination drive aimed at vaccinating the frontline workers whereas, the second phase focused on vaccinating people aged 45 above. The second phase of the vaccination programme was rolled out digitally via the Cowin app. The third phase of the vaccination programme opened registration for 18-45 age group as well. Cowin requires one to agree to the terms and conditions before signing in. It provides for a maximum of 4 registrations from one number, the registration can be done by filling in the details of any government identity proof. After registration, a person can choose a slot available across locations. Further, there is a distinct section of FAQs that enables the persons to know the relevant information details while registering on the app.
The formation of an online framework for vaccination has manufactured an information asymmetry amongst people who are not tech-friendly and do not have access to smartphones. The number of people who use the app is a very small fraction of more than a billion population. The FAQ section recommends people who have no access to the app must take the assistance of other people to book a slot. However, the lack of slots and competitiveness amongst many for few slots has rendered this option futile too. It almost seems to be the ‘survival of the fittest’ amongst the fellow citizens to be vaccinated first. The people who are privileged to have education and access to technology are far ahead in the race of being jabbed. The vaccination drive should have considered the needs of those who belong to the lower strata of the society and may not have the means and access to technology and the internet. Such consideration would have ensured that the vulnerable sections are also safeguarded from the deadly virus. The conduct of the vaccination drive online has given rise to ‘Digital Divide’. It is a divide between the section that have access to technology and the ones that have no access/limited access to technology. The judiciary by way of various judgments has recognised the presence of such a divide leads to violation of various fundamental rights and is a discriminatory practice, to begin with.
The Kerala High Court in the case of Shirin vs. the State of Kerala held that right to access the internet is a fundamental right and forms a part of Article 21 and the right to privacy. The Court also held that the restriction upon the use of mobile phones in the women’s hostel was an unreasonable infringement of the right to access the internet.
The Delhi High Court in the case of Justice for All vs. GNCTD held that students from the economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups not having access to the internet or technological gadgets amounts to discrimination and violation of Article 14 of the Constitution. The Court further held that such students must be provided gadgets and internet for free of cost to end the digital apartheid.
It can very well be understood by the above-stated judgments that the entire world and its functioning has become digital especially in the wake of the pandemic, however, a large section of the society still does not have access to the digital world or the understanding of it. The judiciary has made it amply clear that the government must ensure that every person has access to the internet and the technological means, however, the reality of having such access continues to be a utopia for many.
The government despite being aware of the teething troubles of technological backwardness and lack of access to the internet started the vaccination drive via the Cowin app. While rolling out the drive via the app, the government failed to consider an alternative for those people who may have no access to the app or are unable to register. An option of registering offline should have been provided for those who cannot find their way through the Cowin app.
The lack of vision on part of the government has not only alienated a large section of the society but has also created privacy concerns. The Apex Court in K.S. Puttaswamy’s case also famously known as the Aadhar judgment declared the ‘Right to Privacy’ as a fundamental right. People who may not know about their privacy concerns also have the right to privacy. A person not armed with the awareness regarding the data storage and its consequences would not be able to guard his/her privacy. Moreover, seeking assistance from others while booking slots creates information hurdles as most of the information regarding privacy and other related details may not be sufficiently passed on. Even if such details are passed on, it makes it incredibly challenging for people who are not tech-friendly to make sense of it. Needless to say, the indirect way of booking slots makes the process of vaccination opaque and cumbersome.
While the app has helped in steering an expedient vaccination drive by presenting the details regarding empty slots and vaccines; the current progression of vaccination will not be able to cover the entire length and breadth of the country due to the technological hindrance it poses to many. The government must find substitute ways of vaccination to remove the digital apartheid and make vaccines available to one and all. This step would also align with the Right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. The alarming rise in the number of deaths due to COVID 19 presses upon the urgency of vaccinating people in a time-bound manner. Every person having the right to life and liberty also has the right to be vaccinated. The government must introduce an inclusive vaccination drive to level the field for people who are lagging. An inclusive vaccination drive would provide an equal opportunity of being vaccinated to everyone and ensure that right to equality enshrined under Article 14 of the Constitution is complied with.
The government can take lessons from the famous polio drive. The drive was spearheaded on the shoulders of the volunteers who went from door to door administering the polio dose covering people across sections, urban and rural. A similar vaccination policy is required to curb the elimination of those who need to be vaccinated the most. The vaccination policy may improve with the availability of more vaccines and a clearer strategy, but it will not mitigate the damage accrued in the meanwhile. Therefore, the government must rethink the way of making the vaccination drive more inclusive and must do so rapidly.