Opening up of COVID-19 vaccination for all above the age of 18 and the rarity of vaccine slots and has got many techies in India to bypass the regular booking system. The vaccination slot booking is now a tech-a-thon with many coders designing a system to receive slot availability alerts and some even automatically booking the slots. When vaccination slot booking opened for the age group of 18 to 44 on April 28, the Co-WIN website crashed within minutes. The following days saw slots fully booked any minute you opened the portal. So much so that, it was difficult to book slots even for the second shot for those above the age of 45. It became humanly impossible to compete with the speed at which the slots got booked.
“I am a banker located in Kolkata and have been going to office throughout the pandemic. Still, we have not been recognised as a frontline worker. I subscribed to one of these alert systems,” said one of the members of a Telegram group that sends alerts when a slot opens up in that city. Speaking on condition of anonymity he said he has still not managed to get the jab.
Instances like this got techies in Bengaluru, Chennai, and other cities to crack codes, write scripts. These scripts check for the vaccine slot availability multiple times in a minute. Once the slots are available, the scripts login to the Co-WIN website. The scripts are automated to input the mobile number, and check and validate the OTP generated and, schedule a slot. Some bots send alerts via SMS, Telegram, WhatsApp, and mail.
Some of these Telegram groups — for example the “U45 Bengaluru BBMP” has more than 20,000 members. Each time an alert is seen on the group, the slots get booked within a minute or two. These services are offered by individuals and large companies.
Co-WIN chief RS Sharma has denied that this is not possible at all. He has even challenged those who claimed otherwise. Most states including Karnataka have made it clear that the 18-44 age group will wait have to wait longer before they can all take the jab, all this while there is severe shortage of vaccine to even inoculate the 45+ group for the second time.
“For 18+ vaccination should start post May 15. That is when we are expected to receive the vaccines,” said Karnataka health minister K Sudhakar.
As per the state’s submission in the high court on Wednesday, it has inoculated more than 80 lakh with the first dose and only about 20 lakh with the second dose. The state has less than 80,000 doses left for vaccinating the remaining 60 lakh odd people.
While booking slots through codes and scripts may not be illegal, it has surely made the digital divide more apparent. It has made the vaccination process exclusionary and privileges more pronounced. These scripts require some knowledge of coding and also laptops and access to good Internet, which the majority of India does not possess.