Vaccine-finder apps everywhere in India with few shots in sight

Type Namaste, the Indian greeting, and a WhatsApp chatbot asks the user’s zip code and instantly throws up a list of vaccination centers nearby. A search on Google Maps shows the route to the nearest clinic with vaccine availability.

Technology giants from Facebook Inc to Alphabet Inc’s Google, and startups from Paytm to HealthifyMe, are rolling out a plethora of vaccine finder apps and tools to help schedule shots in a nation where the doses themselves are quickly running out.

India, which has 17.7% of the world’s population, has so far vaccinated 6% of its citizens, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. With the country gripped by a devastating wave of infections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly opened vaccinations to all adults, leading to a rush of demand.

When the government’s own vaccine portal opened registrations on April 28 for people between 18 and 44 years, the website and the Co-Win app crashed. Still, over 3.5 million had managed to register within an hour of the opening. They now await their slots, with some calling the process a “lottery”.

Tech firms have stepped in to help:

This week Facebook released a Vaccine Finder Tool in 17 languages on its mobile app, partnering with the government to steer people to nearby places for vaccines. The tool shows walk-in options for over-45s and a link to register and schedule an appointment.

Google has collaborated with the Ministry of Health to “accurately surface information on vaccination centers on Google Search, Maps and Google Assistant”, the Cupertino-based search giant said. It’s providing government officials regular Google Trends reports on Covid vaccine queries to help them make critical decisions on rollout timings and locations.

On Thursday, digital payments startup Paytm introduced its Vaccine Finder to alert citizens about real-time availability and receive alerts via Paytm chat. The tool scours availability in 780 districts in the country, allows users to filter slots based on location and age, and helps book a slot.

Apps like those from Facebook and Google, and websites like VaccinateMe, Under45, FindMyVaccine, GetJab and FindSlot say they are trying to match supply and demand. Critics say they offer unfair advantages to tech-savvy Indians over the millions of others who can barely read or have no access to technology.

“In the beginning, vaccine hesitancy really slowed the process,” said Dr. Sudarshan Ballal, chairman of Manipal Health Enterprises Pvt whose chain of hospitals countrywide are seeing droves of people jostle for jabs, throwing caution to the wind. “Now there’s vaccine desperation and, with only a small numbers of vaccines available daily, vaccine despondency.” – Bloomberg