Lucknow: Raajni Chaursiya (25), a health worker based in Lucknow, was quite excited when the Uttar Pradesh government decided to administer the COVID-19 vaccine free of cost to all those above 18 years of age from May 1. But her excitement faded after she failed to get her first dose of the vaccine despite four consecutive attempts between May 10 and May 30.
She says booking the slots for vaccine appointments on CoWin platform has become a game of fastest finger first, much like what one usually sees during booking Tatkal tickets online. Disappointed, Raajni left searching for availability of a dose in Lucknow as there was no hope left for her.
"I registered on the CoWin portal myself in May and have been trying to book an appointment for the first dose since May 14 but all in vain as the slots would become unavailable within a fraction of a second after login,” said Raajni. She added that “Before booking, I usually check which government hospital or health centre has maximum vaccination slots and then would book accordingly, but surprisingly it came down straight from 300 slots to 50 some time ago. Still, I did not give up and tried, but as you hit the confirm button at the end, it reverts with the response that the centre is fully booked and you have to try at another centre," she told Newsclick, adding that her colleagues and friends were also facing a similar situation.
When asked if the government organised vaccination drives for health workers in the state, the health activist said that there are no such facilities initiated by the government so far and they are trying themselves but still not able to get the first dose.
Like Raajni, Sangeeta Maurya (35) was also not able to find available slots for the first dose of the vaccine in Lucknow or her home district Azamgarh. Narrating a similar ordeal, she said that she registered herself on CoWin on April 29, thinking that finally it was time to get the vaccine and feel safe but it has been more than a month that she has not succeeded. Even Maurya's friend circle of around 20 girls failed to get the first dose due to "shortage of vaccine" in Lucknow and adjoining districts.
"Initially, the schedule for the first dose of Covishield would schedule for every Sunday between 10 am to 5 pm. I tried every Sunday and gave my entire day to get the slots at the nearest Community Centre and Primary Health Centre in my area in Indira Nagar. Every time I clicked on the schedule button, they asked me to put in the area pin code to get all the information on vaccine availability in their areas but the moment I complete the process, the slots disappear as soon as they become available. The green button which would show 200-300 slots before booking, vanished in a moment and turned into a red button; God knows if someone has hijacked the government portal or what," a distraught Maurya told Newsclick.
She further said that apart from the meagre availability of slots, the problem was the absence of a way for CoWin to notify users when a slot was available in their area. "I am a health worker and need to go to the office on daily using public transport and hence, I wanted to get vaccinated as earlier as possible,” she said.
The CoWin platform facilitates registration (in both online and on-site modes), scheduling of appointments, vaccination and certification of beneficiaries during COVID-19 vaccination process.
Anubhav, a native of Barabanki district, has been trying to get the vaccine slot for the past month, but has failed so far. “At least, we should get the first dose of the vaccine, how can we fight the virus without getting it?” he asked.
“I don't know any trick. I check empty slots through a chatbot. Wherever I see it, I book it for me or someone I know. Many times it happens that as soon as the information is filled, the slot gets out of hand. Input has to be entered at a very high speed. Internet speed is also needed fast," he said.
Meanwhile, at a time where hundreds of people fail to get their first vaccination slots in Uttar Pradesh due to unavailability at centres, there are people who also claimed that the vaccine is easily available in private hospitals and can be administered at Rs 600 - 1,000 per dose.
However, Newsclick visited multiple private hospitals in Lucknow's Gomti Nagar and Chinhat area and gathered information that the private hospitals are charging at least Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per shot from the people. The hospital authority said that the slots for the first dose of Covishield vaccine were available but those had to go through government procedures.
"We have vaccines and anyone can schedule a slot through the CoWin website easily but it would be paid,” a resident doctor said.
Another doctor, based in Gorakhpur and wishing anonymity, told Newsclick, "People got the first dose of the vaccine at a private hospital in Gorakhpur for Rs 1,200 when coronavirus was on its peak, but it has stopped now due to the shortage of vaccine and strict surveillance of government."
An ASHA worker deputed at Lucknow High Court told Newsclick on the condition of anonymity, fearing losing job that one can easily get the slots in the high court while paying Rs 500-600 but it should be “very confidential”.
When asked how the process is going for the slots in the high court when it is not easily available at PHC/CHC, she said: “Well, I don’t know the process but I helped dozens of people getting a vaccination for only Rs 600. Those who booked slots here and not coming due to any reason, we give those vaccines to others, this is how it working as of now,” she told Newsclick.
Sarad Gupta, a senior paediatrician and former president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) in Agra, told Newsclick, "Since the demand of vaccine is higher and supply is less, then obviously the slots will be exhausted. There is a never-ending queue at almost every health centre for vaccination but everyone is not lucky enough to get the first dose," Gupta told Newsclick, adding that there should be "one nation one rate for vaccine" across the country but unfortunately it was not being done by the central government.
He also pointed out the digital divide in the vaccination process. "If a person does not have a smartphone, how will he get registered on CoWin? if someone is living in remote areas, then how will he or she access the internet?Similarly, how will an illiterate person or rickshaw puller receive their vaccine? Don't these people deserve the vaccination like others?" asked Gupta, adding that since the beginning, the government has created confusion -- first between Covaxin and Covishield, and now the long gap between first and second dose.
Another doctor said that the slots in private hospitals were easily accessible while it was an uphill task to get the same at the government centres. “Where will a poor man go who cannot afford such a high price?" he asked while speaking to Newsclick on the condition of anonymity.
According to Shishir Singh, Director Information and Public Relations, Uttar Pradesh, total 1,86,79,320 doses of vaccine have been administered till June 1, of which 1,48,51,890 beneficiaries have received the first dose of the COVID vaccine and 34,80,426 have received their second dose so far.