Digital divide puts vaccination out of reach for rural folks in Himachal

Digital divide puts vaccination out of reach for rural folks in Himachal

Digital divide puts vaccination out of reach for rural folks in Himachal

Image for representation purposes only (Picture credit: Ram Balmur)

Poor internet connectivity, cumbersome registration process and allotment of centres at distant places are slowing down vaccination in remote parts of the hill state.

Shimla: One major challenge faced by both the government machinery and citizens alike in some rural areas of Himachal Pradesh in their efforts to contain the spread of the second wave of coronavirus infections has exposed holes in the Union Government’s much-hyped Digital India initiative, and hampers its efforts to rein in the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to the problems caused by the digital divide are the consecutive local governments’ failures in improving the health infrastructure in the rural areas of this hill state. 

Unlike the residents in several remote areas across the country, where villagers refuse to take vaccination against coronavirus owing to their superstitious beliefs and lack of awareness, people in several rural areas of Himachal Pradesh are accusing the government of laxity during the time of a pandemic. 

Residents in a number of remote villages visited by 101Reporters said that they were struggling to register their names for vaccination because of either poor connectivity or the lack of internet networks in their villages. They said that this situation was forcing them to travel long distances to access the internet so that they can book slots for receiving the vaccine. In addition, the few lucky ones who succeed in getting slots for the vaccination were being forced again to travel several kilometres amid the lockdown and other restrictions imposed by the government to take the jab for want of necessary medical facilities in their own villages, they said.

Ajay Bherta, a resident of Darkoti panchayat in Kotkhai Tehsil, said he had to travel around 55 kilometres to register for and receive the vaccination because of poor net connectivity in his village. He said the majority of residents in his village were not tech-savvy and the registration process on the online platform for it was cumbersome because of troubles in internet connectivity. The government should accord priority to the residents of the tribal belts in its vaccination drives considering the geographical and topographical conditions of these areas, he said. 

“The issue is not one, but many. Technical glitches in the CoWIN App and poor internet connectivity are making it difficult for many residents in the tribal belts to register their names for vaccination. Even if one manages to access the App, the slots that are available disappear in no time. Those who are lucky enough to get a slot have to travel kilometres to receive the vaccine. I had to travel around 55 kilometres to receive the jab because the vaccination centre allotted to me was at Mashobra near Shimla,” Bherta said.

Prakash Chand, a resident of Badhal panchayat in Jubbal, told 101Reporters that people in his village often had to struggle for weeks to register their names on the CoWIN App for vaccination because of the non-availability of slots. Because of poor internet connectivity, it took them a long time to open the App, and by the time they get access, all slots would already be booked, he said. This was forcing the residents to go to places with better internet connectivity for registration and even travel more distances to receive the vaccine. 

Rajpal from Jashla Panchayat in Kotkhai accused the government of apathy. He alleged that the authorities were not taking effective steps to fill the gap between the demand and availability of vaccines in rural areas. The government’s current practice of providing the vaccine only to those who have registered on the CoWIN App was denying the opportunity to people living in areas with poor or no internet access, he said.  He also questioned the government’s logic behind imposing the lockdown, which was preventing people from going to other places to receive the vaccine, without setting up vaccination centres in villages. 

The villagers said they were aware of the benefits of vaccination and wanted to immunise themselves against COVID-19. They said the government must ease the registration process and set up vaccination centres at every village so that the residents would not have to travel long distances violating lockdown restrictions to receive the shots.

Capital region not different

A similar situation was also reported by some residents of the state capital Shimla and its adjacent areas. Even though they rarely faced internet connectivity issues, many of them had to travel 20 to 30 kilometres to receive the vaccine. 

Pujya Lakshmi from Pagog Panchayat near Shimla said she had to travel 25 kilometres to a vaccination centre at Ghanatti where she was allotted a slot. Shimla-based siblings Ishan and Manisha Sharma said they had to travel 30 kilometres to a vaccination centre at Dhami. 

Manisha said, “On the one hand, the government has imposed lockdown restrictions, and we want to follow them for our own safety. On the other hand, the government is forcing us to travel several kilometres to receive the vaccine by sending us to centres that are in far off places.”

Acknowledging the internet connectivity problems in remote areas, which were making it difficult for residents to enrol their names on the CoWIN portal, Rohru Sub-Divisional Magistrate BR Sharma said the state government was taking steps to facilitate vaccination of these people without registration. If implemented, this will help a population over 31 lakh in the age group of 18–44 years receive the vaccine without much hassle. 

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