The pandemic of loneliness and isolation, the nuance and power of that missing direct touch and connection with the near and dear, all that was highly frustrating. Or, should I say, bewildering.
Over it, the constant fear of inhaling the virus from somewhere … the known or unknown … no matter whether it was a person or an object, the altered style of caring for even family and friends, … ha, what a traumatizing change!
As I was thus lost in the labyrinth of these thoughts, the ring tone of my phone alerted me to a new message: “Dear …Murty you are eligible and may avail precaution … after medical advice. Please visit cowin.gov.in-CoWIN.”
Wow, what a surprise! A functional message from a functional government, “Isn’t it?”
This instantaneously reminded me of one of my childhood experiences. It was 1956. I was studying third form in Taluk High School. One winter evening, I was lazily walking back home from school. As I reached the stone house of the lawyer, suddenly somebody in a khaki short and white shirt stopped me in the middle of the road by holding my upper arm. I stared at him in bewilderment. “Don’t fear, come to this side” saying, he pulled me into the open yard of a house left to the road.
There were two tables placed side by side and a bench behind each table. A man sitting behind the first table enquiring me noted down my name, age, the class that I am studying, father’s name, and location of our house in a big register spread open on the table. He then explained the purpose of retaining me there thus: “You will be given BCG vaccine. It protects you from TB. No pain. Good for you. So, coolly take it.”
The khaki short fellow then took me to the other table. There on that table was placed a white box and a kerosene stove warming water in a vessel that was loaded with needles and syringes. Behind it stood a nurse in a white frock and cap with a syringe in her hand. There was a boy by her side with one of his arms held by an attendant. Making me stand behind that boy, the khaki short fellow took books from my other hand and placed them on the bench.
After a while, looking at me with a smile, the nurse enquiring my name, etc., and rubbing wet wool on my deltoid muscle gently, suddenly inserted the needle into the muscle and injected the vaccine by pressing the plunger… Then pulling it out, she applied slight pressure on the injection site with a wet ball of wool and then directed me to sit on the bench for 10 minutes holding the cotton at the site, and then to go home. Also told, “You may get slight pain tomorrow. Don’t fear. That’s OK! If you feel hardness at the site, ask your Amma to massage there with warm water—not today, only tomorrow, OK?”
So, that was how I got vaccinated in 1956. For that day, that was a great feat! Indeed, the Government, laying down the organizational set-up required in each state to cover the total young population during a five to seven years period, started the BCG Vaccination mass campaign in 1951 and covered all the states by 1955-56. Perhaps, that laid the foundation for subsequent mass campaigns for vaccination in the country!
Of course, today IT has revolutionized the whole scene. It simply transformed governance even in countries of the Global South by enabling them to offer better public service. So, today, if I get a text message from the government reminding me about my due date for a booster dose, there is absolutely no wonder. For, the radical changes in our daily lives that were ushered in by IT have by now become a taken for a granted lot!
Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of AI, machine learning, IoT, and digital technologies to public health security and pandemic preparedness by answering the call for enhanced agility, scale, and responsiveness more effectively. AI and high-performance computing have also come in handy in accelerating research into understanding the virus and developing vaccines, and therapeutics to arrest and treat infections.
Even we in India experienced the benefits of our government leveraging IT to manage the pandemic. It is the government’s Cloud-based digital platform CoWIN, which, by facilitating easy and accurate registration for appointments and recording the immunizations, helped the nation to cover around 87 crore people with two doses of the vaccine and over 100 crores of people with at least a single dose. Imagine how much time it would have taken if everyone were to be caught hold of by hand as I was then and inject vaccine and take a note of it in a register with a pen!
You know as a student I was to run around Municipal offices quite a number of times to get a vaccination certificate that was needed for attaching to the application form seeking admission to professional colleges such as medical college, agricultural college, etc. But today, sitting at the home I just downloaded my Covid-19 vaccination certificate straight from CoWIN platform—not once, but at the completion of the first, second, and the booster dose. That’s the luxury IT is affording today!
Storing of such voluminous data pertaining to more than 100 crore of people and making it available for individuals to download as they desire with a click of a mouse, that too, quite accurately, has now become a child’s play with the availability of Cloud Computing. What a technological progress! And, another important gain to the ordinary citizen is the elimination of the erstwhile rent-seeking agents in the system. That’s a real comfort.
Thanks to IT, today, the government has even digitalized the vaccine supply chain network—Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network (eVIN) developed with the support of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, and implemented under the UN Development Program through a smart-phone based app— through the use of cloud technology that keeps it posted with the latest information on vaccine stocks and temperatures across the network in the country. This ensures the maintenance of the efficiency of the national cold chain network.
Having said that, we cannot ignore the fact of weak links that the pandemic had exposed in an otherwise strong vaccine service delivery network that we have built over the years. For, the success of a sustainable vaccination program heavily relies on supportive infrastructure such as the uninterrupted supply of electricity that maintains the functionality of the cold chain network. But reports indicate wastage of vaccines due to failure to properly control storage temperatures. And such wastage has two implications: one, cost implication, and two, importantly delays the achievement of immunization targets.
Aside from the laurels for the good work so far done, we, taking a cue from these experiences, must pivot to newer mechanisms such as solar energy, etc., to build resilient cold chain systems across the country to be future-ready to handle newer pandemics, if any, more effectively.