FROM 8 am on Saturday, Nilesh Rawal’s eyes were trained onto his laptop, two mobile phones in his hands, as he made rapid calls to district level officials. The CoWIN page refused to load onto his screen. By 10.30 am, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his speech, Rawal, the administrative officer in Palghar’s sub-district hospital, was surrounded by staff in panic. An internet operator and a technician from Jawhar village were summoned and, eventually, at 12.35 pm the vaccination drive started. It was, however, without CoWIN as the software glitch could not be set right.
By then, Dr Anand Adsul, the first beneficiary, had already waited for four-and-a-half hours. Local MLA Sunil Bhusara could not wait any longer and posed for a photograph with a nurse, who pretended to inject Adsul.
The sub-district hospital in Jawhar, located in the tribal hilly terrain of Palghar, is one of the few remote hospitals demonstrating challenges in rural and tribal areas as India takes to a digital platform for the first time for a countrywide immunisation drive against Covid-19.
CoWIN, an online software, will require all data of health beneficiaries to be uploaded in real time when they get the shot. This software is also supposed to create and send automated messages scheduling appointment for vaccination. But in Jawhar hospital, the superintendent personally informed all 100 beneficiaries when the software did not work on Friday.
The hospital was able to immunise 67 health workers, all its own staff, by evening. “This was possible because they were our staff and willing to wait. The real problem will come up when private health workers start coming or when we go deeper into villages to vaccinate,” said superintendent Dr Ramdas Mahad.
In Dahanu sub-district hospital, 70 km from Palghar, the CoWIN software stopped working after the first beneficiary was registered. Even at the Palghar rural hospital, where the internet signal is comparatively better, the software was slow to respond.
Officials said while internet was one problem, too much traffic on the software could be another. “We were trained to use it, but it looks like the software has been updated and I am learning to navigate it now,” said Rawal, who sat at the registration desk in Jawhar.
The Jawhar hospital has installed a 10 Mbps Wi-Fi router and asked a technician to remain on standby for the next few days. Taluka health officer Dr Kiran Patil said for rural and tribal areas, digital technology will be the biggest impediment to the vaccination programme. “But we are learning,” he said.
In Kasa sub-district hospital, a security guard and hospital staff remained stationed guarding 110 vaccine doses. The centre was removed from Saturday’s drive in an attempt to reduce the total number of centres and traffic on the CoWIN software.
“We made all preparations, checked our internet speed too. The decision to remove this centre was sudden,” said medical superintendent Dr Pradeep Dhodi.
In Palghar district, seven centres were chosen and four functioned on Saturday. In rural areas, unsure of the response to the vaccine, centres first reached out to their own staff. This allowed them scope for delay and error.
Prajakta Mangude (28) said she got a call from the hospital on Friday, but did not get an automated text message. “I have lived apart from my husband for eight months. I was confused whether to take it, but our hospital authorities counselled me. I want to stay with my family without the worry of getting infected so I took the vaccine,” Mangude said.
Keeping in mind the next phase of inoculation of frontline workers, Palghar immunisation officer Dr Milind Chavan said they planned to select schools, primary health centres with good network. “These centres will be in proximity to specialised hospitals to manage adverse events. Today was like a trial for us and we learnt lessons. Once we start vaccinating general public, we can’t afford such delay.”