Kaimur: The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the country’s deep digital divide as remote areas struggle to keep pace with the central government’s web-based vaccination drive.
Take the case of Bihar’s remote Adhaura, the state’s least populated block, which is 58 kilometres from the digitally well-connected district headquarters in Kaimur.
In internet miles, that distance is an eternity.
Forget access to Cowin, very few have even heard of the Bihar government’s Home Isolation Tracking or HIT app, which is supposed to monitor Covid patients across the state.
Add vaccine hesitancy to the lack of internet connectivity and the district administration has a battle on its hands.
Kaimur’s Deputy Development Commissioner Kumar Gaurav said a letter has already been sent to the state government to take vaccination offline in these areas.
Underscoring the internet deprivation in Adhaura, block development officer Alok Kumar Sharma, 30, spoke about the lengths his team goes to just to send a WhatsApp message to the Kaimur headquarters.
“A team member travels 22 kilometres from here to a point on the Uttar Pradesh border where he gets connectivity. From there, he shoots off messages to the headquarters. To send one message, I need a man, a bike and petrol to cover 22 kilometres,” he said.
His helplessness is clearly visible as he talks about the lack of resources in this remote block — a tribal belt cut off from the world with no internet and no modern facilities.
The 118 villages here are hemmed in by forests and have a population of 57,000. More than six panchayats are yet to see road connectivity. With the monsoon approaching, these villages will be totally inaccessible to the administration, Sharma said.
There is one silver lining to this grim tale. The block was declared Covid-free on 23 May. Cases were mild and not a single patient required hospitalisation, block officers said.
But inaccessibility is a huge roadblock to the vaccine drive. Only 2,000 people of the total population have got the first dose.
And rumour doesn’t need the internet to get wings here. It travels the old-fashioned way — by mouth and hearsay.
Rumour is that the ‘vaccine can kill’
Sharma said the 2,000 were vaccinated when there were no misleading stories. He added: “But I feel so frustrated now. Not a single villager can be convinced to take the vaccine as misinformation travels fast.”
A large chunk of the 1,000 doses delivered to Adhaura on 13 May remain unused. Not a single shot could be administered last weekend, prompting Sharma to discuss the matter with police and local politicians.
Sharma said it was most difficult to convince tribes like the Korvas, who live on the periphery of the jungle. “They will not come to the village panchayat or the block office to get the dose. We have to chase them. With the monsoon approaching, work will get more difficult. And I believe there is a third wave coming too,” he said.
Of the tribals, 80 per cent belong to Kharwars, 4 per cent are Chero and 13 per cent Agadiya. The administration plays a cat-and-mouse game to try and persuade them to take shots.
When ThePrint visited a few villages, tribals fled to the jungles thinking the vaccine would be forced on them.
From one village to the other, stories of people “dying from the vaccine” get exaggerated.
Twenty kilometres from the block office is Karar village, where Malti Chero Chaudhary, 45, is too scared of strangers. Spotting us, she ran inside her house and hid for a while.
She later came out to ask if the vaccination programme was a “conspiracy to kill us”. “I heard three people died in Hathini after taking the shot,” she said to buttress her claim.
Things are not much different in the Bardeeha village either. The elderly are scared of the vaccination. A few who got the first jab a month ago are now dreading the second dose as one man got a mild fever that lasted some days.
But there is a ray of hope. Tribal man Saurabh Kumar, 25, wants to get vaccinated.
He said: “Yahan log ghabaraye hue hai ki lagwate hi mar jayenge. Lekin humko toh lagwana hai. Pata chal nahin pa raha hai kab lag raha hai. Gaadi nahin hai toh jile ya block mein nahin ja sakte (People fear the vaccine may kill them. But I want to take it. I don’t know where the drive is. I don’t have a vehicle either to visit the district or block headquarters).”
Kumar hasn’t heard of CoWin or the Hit app yet. He travels three kilometres from his home to a point where he gets network on his mobile. Just to make calls. He is still not connected to the world of internet.
“WhatsApp ya YouTube chalta nahin hai, idhar toh sab TV par hi dekh pata hai (There is no WhatsApp or YouTube here so we get information from TV),” he said.