How the digital divide impacts young India’s vaccination chances

The CoWin portal, which was opened for registration for the 18-44 age group on May 1, has come under the scanner for its potential to exclude those on the other side of the digital divide given that registration is mandatory.

Hearing a suo motu case recently, the Supreme Court asked the government to “wake up and smell the coffee”, stressing a ‘digital divide’ causing unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines in India. The CoWin portal, which was opened for registration for the 18-44 age group on May 1, has come under the scanner for its potential to exclude those on the other side of the digital divide given that registration is mandatory.

How wide is the digital divide?

In the Lokniti-CSDS National Election Study 2019, only 1 in every 3 were found to be using smartphones (approximately 90% of the smartphone users had Internet in their phones), and merely 16% and 10% households had access to a computer/laptop and an Internet connection at home, respectively. Even though 18-44-year-olds were more likely to own smartphones (nearly half), the proportion is still dismal, with the majority of the chunk likely to get the jab later than their privileged counterparts.

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In 2017, 24% Indians (and 35% among 18-44s) owned smartphones. Going by our most recent data of late 2020 and early 2021, in the five states that went to polls most recently — Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala — smartphone users have grown by 12%, from 33% in 2019 to 45% in 2020-21. Among 18-44s, this proportion improved from 47% to 56%. Since we also find that these five states taken together mirrored the national average for smartphone ownership both in 2017 and 2019, we assume a similar growth nationally as well. This would mean that a majority of the population in India still finds itself at the wrong side of the digital divide.

Who all stand at the risk of exclusion?

Unsurprisingly, the urban, the rich, the upper castes, the rich, the educated and men are more likely to own Internet-enabled smartphones, while the rest stand at a risk of exclusion from accessing vaccines.

Women, for instance, are far less likely to own smartphones, with a gap of 22 percentage points among 18-44s. Further, the digital divide accentuates through caste and class — the rich (18-44 years) are three times more likely than the poor, while the upper castes are more than 1.5 times likely than SCs/STs (Table 1) to have a smartphone. What’s more, even among those between 18-44, the divide is quite significant with the youngest chunk of 18-25 twice as likely to own a smartphone as 36-44s.

Backing up the Supreme Court’s observation, the data highlights the “farfetchedness of an illiterate villager from rural India crossing the ‘digital divide’ to register for Covid-19 vaccine on the CoWin portal”. Among 18-44, merely 8% of non-literates, 17% of those who studied up to the primary, and 40% of those educated up to matric own smartphones, as against three in four (74%) of college-educated. The urban-rural divide too is colossal, as highlighted in Table 1, with more than three-fifths of the 18-44 urban population owning smartphones, as against less than two-fifth in rural spaces. Even among urban dwellers, 72% of 18-44s in cities own smartphones, as against 56% in towns. With the second wave of Covid-19 spreading into the interiors, which had largely remained unaffected during the first wave, the rural-urban asymmetry in the vaccination coverage needs to be addressed.

Does the digital divide cut across states?

Table 2 shows a state-wise comparison of smartphone users in the 18-44 age group with the proportion of those vaccinated with at least one dose as of June 1, i.e. exactly a month since the inclusion of this age group. Of the nine states that stand below the national average of smartphone users, seven also fall behind the nationwide average of 18% who got their first jab. Further, of the 10 states with the highest proportion of smartphone users, seven also feature among the top-performing states with regard to the administration of the first jab during the first month. Simply put, the lower the proportion of smartphone users in a state, the lower the chances of getting a jab, and vice versa. However, it must be emphasised that there are several other factors impacting the chances, including the availability of vaccines in a state.

As you read this, a sizeable population struggles to get a shot at the life-saving vaccine — some in the absence of an Internet-enabled smartphone, some due to ignorance of the registration process, some for not knowing the only language (English) the portal is available in, and the rest, in navigating through the complex multi-step journey on the portal for freezing a slot despite having the means.

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