When India opened Covid-19 vaccination appointments for the 18–45-year-old age group last month, a 30-year-old software developer was already preparing to book his slot. Amid a deadly second wave of coronavirus cases and a crushing shortage of vaccines, he was one among hundreds of millions vying for the vaccine.
He managed to get a slot at a government hospital through the country’s newly launched vaccination portal, CoWIN, but when he arrived for his appointment, the hospital had already run out of vaccines. He went back to book again, this time at a private hospital, but by then, the vaccination slots were being taken minutes, sometimes seconds, after he loaded the website.
So the developer, who spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash, did what he knew best: he built a bot to hack the government vaccination site’s code.
He began writing code at 9 a.m. that day, finished at 11 a.m., and successfully booked a vaccination appointment by noon. By 2 p.m., he had received his first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
For Indians in the 18–45 year age group, access to the vaccine is available only through the government-run online portal. The software developer and dozens of software engineers around India like him are building code on top of India’s already strained vaccination site. The site has an open application programming interface, or API, which makes it easy for coders in the know to iterate on the government-run appointment system. But as India’s daily coronavirus death toll reaches 4,000 deaths a day, for Indians who struggle to get online — let alone hack code— the vaccine remains out of reach. It’s highlighting India’s yawning digital divide, one that severely affects the country’s poorest during a deadly public health crisis.
Over the last three weeks, states around the country have reported vaccine shortages. Populous states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana announced that they would not be vaccinating adults below 45, simply because they didn’t have enough vaccines to do so. A Reuters report found that India was vaccinating fewer people every day, from 4.5 million a day on April 5 to 2.5 a day by April 23.
In Bangalore, a city home to the country’s biggest tech companies, competition for vaccinations was made all the more difficult as coders hacked their way to appointments. Praveen Gopal Krishnan, chief operating officer of the online business publication The Ken, described the vaccine drive as a “hackathon” on Twitter. “If you are 18+ and live in Bangalore, the only way to get vaccine appointments is to use python scripts that ping CoWIN’s public API and set up notification alerts via Telegram, Twitter, or SMS,” he tweeted.
Within two weeks of CoWIN’s launch, reports of coders filling crucial vaccination slots began to surface in the Indian media. Ram Sewak Sharma, CEO of India’s National Health Authority, shared a discussion page for CoWIN’s public API on Twitter last week. Users replied to the tweet criticizing the automated bots that had already begun to make the registration process next to impossible. “Feels unfair, slots are going in 10 seconds here in Bangalore,” tweeted one user.
Sharing APIs for government websites has long been the norm in India, a move made in 2015 as a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India campaign, which aims to bring virtually all of the country’s government services online. It allows for anyone to build code on hundreds of publicly-available government datasets. In November last year, Modi declared that Digital India had become “a way of life.” “Using technology at such a large scale has brought about several life changes for our citizens,” he said at a Bangalore tech summit. “The benefits are for everyone to see.”
But as the country hurdles into another deadly week of the pandemic — the country’s crematoriums have been forced to build makeshift pyres to keep up with the pace of deaths — access to public health resources has been difficult, even for those frantically organizing online aid.
For India’s poorest, even basic knowledge about the vaccine is limited. “We haven’t heard of the CoWIN website,” said Arajit Das, an electrician who lost his job and picked up work as a delivery driver during the pandemic. Nithya S, a maid who bikes to work in Bangalore every day despite the rising case count in the city, told Rest of World, “I didn’t know I could get a vaccine if I wanted it.”
The software developer in Bangalore said he took to building the vaccine appointment code partly because he’s in between jobs and wanted to help others. “I open sourced the code as soon as I wrote it. I took it down later, fearing backlash,” he explained. “I’ve helped friends book slots. I’d say I’ve helped over 40 people.”
“This is a free market race to the bottom,” Srinivas Kodali, a digital activist and researcher, told Rest of World. “Those who can navigate this information economy are doing it. We’re all trying to survive the system we’re in.”